Lady Jays back in Class 2 tennis Final Four

Jefferson City’s Kelly Raithel lunges to make the return along the baseline during a match earlier this season at Washington Park. Raithel and her Jefferson City teammates will be in the Class 2 state semifinals today in Springfield.

Jefferson City’s Kelly Raithel lunges to make the return along the baseline during a match earlier this season at Washington Park. Raithel and her Jefferson City teammates will be in the Class 2 state semifinals today in Springfield. Photo by News Tribune.

If you do something one time, it can be an aberration.

Do it twice, and you’ve got a trend on your hands.

It’s a case of the latter for the Jefferson City tennis team, as the Lady Jays have earned their second straight trip to the Class 2 Final Four.

When the event begins today at the Cooper Tennis Complex in Springfield, the Lady Jays will be making their first back-to-back trips to the Final Four since the last of five straight trips from 1990-94.

Lady Jays coach John Blosser said the experience of competing on the big stage last year has come in handy already.

“It helped us at sectionals,” he said, referencing last weekend’s wins against Joplin and Springfield Kickapoo that qualified the team for state. “The girls knew what to expect, they knew we had to win two matches. We hoped it wouldn’t come down to doubles (in the deciding match versus Kickapoo), but we knew there was a pretty good chance it would. And they did well there.”

As a result, Jefferson City (18-5) will play Lee’s Summit North (20-1) at 9 a.m. today in the semifinal round. That’s the same Broncos team the Lady Jays lost to by a 5-2 score in last year’s third-place match.

“They beat us 5-2, but we were at match point to win a doubles match and the other doubles match was still in question,” Blosser said. “And we had split sets at No. 1 and No. 2 singles and lost both of those matches. So we had some other opportunities to win.

“We’re hoping with those split sets, we can not split them and get them in two.”

With a win, the Lady Jays would play for the state title at 1 p.m. against the winner of the other semifinal between defending state champion St. Joseph’s Academy (16-1) and Rock Bridge (25-0).

Haley Snellen, the team’s lone senior, said she’s experiencing a mixture of emotions that includes excitement and nervousness.

“I’m just happy to even be able to go to state with these girls again, it’s very exciting,” she said. “I’m more determined to get past fourth place. I want all of us to get higher than that. I know we can do a lot better than we did last year, because we’ve improved a lot.”

III

Once the team tournament is done, the attention will focus on the state’s elite singles players and doubles teams, as the individual state tournament happens Friday and Saturday.

The Lady Jays will be well-represented, as Eden Hoogveld and Paige Smith will make their second straight appearance in the doubles tournament, where they’ll be joined by Snellen and Kelly Raithel.

“One of our goals this year was to get back to (team) state, and to win a match there, and we wanted to take more girls to the individual tournament than we did last year,” Blosser said. “So we’ve accomplished the second goal, we’ve still got work to do for the first one.”

Smith and Hoogveld will open against Parkway Central’s Elena Wilner and Rebecca Davis, while Snellen and Raithel will start out against Mary Burger and Olivia Conway of St. Joseph’s Academy.

Snellen said she won’t start thinking about the doubles tournament until the team tournament is finished.

“You have to take each match, each point, one step at a time,” she said. “… We’re taking each thing like a practice: ‘I’ve got that match done, and I’ll be a little bit better in the next match.’

“I’m going to keep improving myself until my very last match. I’m going to try to win as many as I can.”

Blosser said the key to the next three days will be maintaining focus.

“You can go out and win a set, and then back off a little bit and the momentum shifts,” he said. “... It’s the same in all sports — once that momentum leaves you, it’s tough to get it back. Particularly in tennis: you start questioning your swing.

“In football, when you start getting nervous, you can expend that energy. In tennis, you’ve got to direct it and expend it with your feet, and not your hands. The most common mistake is to start doing it with your hands, and then balls start sailing everywhere.

“It’s probably more like baseball: the guy who’s up there trying to not strike out, or trying to hit the ball out of the park, is not going to be successful. The guy who’s up there just trying to make good contact, he’s got a chance. That’s what this is like.”

 Editor’s note: The Helias Lady Crusaders did not qualify for state as a team, but they will have a representative in the individual state meet. The preview for that event will appear in Friday’s News Tribune.

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