Same goals in mind for Lady Jays tennis team

Jefferson City’s Kelly Raithel lunges to make a return during a match last season at Washington Park.

Jefferson City’s Kelly Raithel lunges to make a return during a match last season at Washington Park. Photo by News Tribune.

While there’s been one big change surrounding the Jefferson City girls tennis team, one thing remains the same — the goal for the end of the season.

After back-to-back fourth-place finishes in the Class 2 state team tournament, it’s safe to say the Lady Jays won’t let that change — a new head coach — derail their hopes for a third straight trip to the Final Four.

“We have a ton of experience coming back — we’ve got five seniors that have been through it all,” said Henry Thompson, the boys coach who takes over the girls program following the retirement of John Blosser. “They know what it takes to play at a very high level and have success. We’ll be leaning on those five seniors to lead our team.”

Thompson’s counting on that veteran leadership to keep the Lady Jays hungry.

“This team has had great success the past couple years, but one thing you’re always fearful of is being satisfied,” Thompson said. “You never want them to be completely satisfied with what they’ve achieved. You also don’t want them to take for granted that we’re going to reach the level they’ve reached the last two years.

“We’re still going to have to keep working hard, still going to have to improve every day and gel as a team. We really feel like we’ve got all the pieces to get back to that level.”

While one season could have been an aberration, two years means a shift in perception.

“I talked to our kids about this last week,” Thompson said. “Do we have a great opportunity ahead of us? Absolutely. But guess what? The target is on our backs and people will be gunning for us every single night we play. … You know that every single team is going to give you their best effort that night. Jeff City is the big match on a lot of those teams’ schedules. However, we much prefer to be in that hunted category than the hunter category.”

So the Lady Jays have put together a schedule that includes some more of those “hunted” teams.

“Our schedule is very, very difficult this year,” Thompson said. “We have the chance by the end of September to have seen the other three Final Four teams from last year (Lee’s Summit North, Rock Bridge and St. Joseph’s Academy). Two of them for sure. I’m a firm believer that when you’ve got a team like we have, you have to schedule up and play high-quality opponents so you can prepare yourself for postseason play.”

Jefferson City’s veteran lineup boasts seniors at the top four singles spots — Kelly Raithel at No. 1, followed by Paige Smith, Eden Hoogveld and Kirstin Schmidt. Then it’s junior Athira Nambiar and senior Maddie Brown rounding out the top six.

Following that group are juniors Esther Ruboneka and Hailey Watson, freshman Erica Dunn and junior Erica Overfelt.

“It’s definitely a luxury to have the depth we do,” Thompson said. “Our top 12 has kids that, at a lot of other places, would probably be on the varsity.”

That depth means even the top players are getting pushed on a daily basis by a variety of teammates.

“It is great in practice to have two or three doubles teams that can challenge our top doubles team,” Thompson said. “That makes them all better in the process.”

Only one doubles team has been locked down.

“Last year, Eden and Paige got eighth at state, so they were all-state,” Thompson said. “So it’s probably a pretty safe bet they’ll be seeing a lot of time together this year at the top spot. After that, we’re trying a few things and seeing what works out best.”

The Lady Jays will open the season today at the Springfield Kickapoo Tournament. Between their own workouts in the summer and the work with the team in the preseason, Thompson thinks they’re ready.

“I’m not sure as a coach you’re ever satisfied with the amount of work the kids put in, but with that being said, for the most part our kids had a very good offseason playing matches, playing tournaments,” he said. “Match experience during the offseason, in my opinion, is what really takes you to a different level from season to season.

“I always want our kids to be playing tennis as much as they can in the offseason. We feel like the first couple weeks of practice have given those kids who weren’t able to get in as much in over the summer a good two solid weeks of getting back in the swing of things.”

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