Lady Jays look to Final Four run for tennis inspiration

Jefferson City’s Kelly Raithel returns a shot during a match against Wayneville last season at Washington Park. Raithel will be at No. 1 for the Lady Jays this season.

Jefferson City’s Kelly Raithel returns a shot during a match against Wayneville last season at Washington Park. Raithel will be at No. 1 for the Lady Jays this season. Photo by News Tribune.

The Jefferson City girls tennis team had a historic season last fall. They’re looking for another one this time around.

The Lady Jays earned a trip to the Class 2 Final Four in 2012, just the sixth such trip in program history. It was their first appearance in the Final Four since 1994.

That was also the last time the Lady Jays went back-to-back — it was the last of five straight trips from 1990-94 — and Jefferson City would like to be back in the Final Four again this season.

“My hope is that the girls will take inspiration from last year and not be satisfied,” said Jefferson City coach John Blosser, whose team ended up taking fourth last year. “That’s a big part of my job, to make sure they don’t get satisfied and stay motivated.”

Making things easier in terms of their goals are the fact most of the Lady Jays return, as Jefferson City has five of its top six players back.

“We have four juniors, a sophomore and a senior in the top six, and the nice thing is the four juniors all played last year — they were at No. 1, 3, 4 and 5 (singles) last year,” Blosser said. “So we’re pretty strong from top to bottom.”

So strong, in fact, the Lady Jays won’t really have their starting lineup officially set when they begin the season at 4 p.m. today against Helias at Washington Park. Because of some new limitations on the length of practices by the Missouri State High School Activities Association, workouts have been shorter for teams in all sports.

“(The new rules have) kind of made the court-availability issue (in town) a bigger deal, because we’ve had a little trouble getting all of our challenge matches in,” Blosser said. “So we will probably be through Helias before we’re done with all our challenge matches.”

A perfect example of the uncertainty comes at the top of the singles ladder, where three juniors are in a battle for position. Kelly Raithel currently holds down the top spot, with Eden Hoogveld at No. 2 and Paige Smith at No. 3.

“They’re all pretty close, and right now Kelly is No. 1, but it’s hard to tell how it’s going to shake out,” Blosser said. “They’re all competing hard and playing well.”

The rest of the lineup includes junior Kirsten Schmidt at No. 4, senior Haley Snellen at No. 5 and sophomore Athira Nambiar at No. 6.

Blosser said the team has avoided and drama from challenge matches because the entire group of girls gets along well. He said they remind him of the low-key, nearly zombie-like nature of PGA Championship-winning golfer Jason Dufner.

“There have been years where one girl beats another and they walk off separate ways, but pretty much every match we’ve had, the girls have come off with their ‘Dufner face’ on,” Blosser said. “I really have to go over and ask them to be sure which one of them won the match. That’s good, because it’s showing the one that lost is handling it pretty well and the one that won is respecting the feelings of her teammate. That’s all good.”

And the competition doesn’t stop there, as it continues down to the JV level, where the top two singles players are senior Delta Verslues and junior Maddie Brown. But it’s not your typical JV team.

“We changed our schedule some and we’ve got our JV playing several varsity teams, so we’ve got to get 12 deep (in singles) because they’ll be playing the same day the varsity is playing somewhere else,” Blosser said. “We really are playing two varsity matches at once, so our second six have got to step up.”

The varsity has beefed up its scheduled as well, including playing a home-and-home series with Rock Bridge, a team that beat Jefferson City in its first match at last year’s Final Four.

“We’re pretty excited, I think we’ve got a really good schedule,” Blosser said. “We’ve got some teams who are going to be a challenge for us.”

The doubles teams appear to be set, with Hoogveld and Smith holding down the top spot.

“Eden and Paige played No. 1 doubles last year and went to state and did real well, so they will be playing No. 1 for us,” Blosser said.

It’s a similar story at No. 2, as Kelly Raithel and Kirsten Schmidt played there last year and will do so again. That leaves Snellen and Nambiar at No. 3.

“They haven’t played doubles together before, but this will be Haley’s third year of playing varsity doubles,” Blosser said. “Athira is new, but she listens well and I think she and Haley will be a real tough No. 3 team.”

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