Helias tennis player Ashley Dowden has been perfect so far this season. If she can stay that way, she'll be the first Lady Crusader to bring home a state title.
When the state individual tennis tournament begins Friday in Springfield, Dowden will bring in a season record of 24-0. If she can make it 28-0, she'll have a championship in her grasp.
"I'm very anxious," the sophomore said earlier this week. "I'm ready for state, I'm ready to play the matches and have the great experience."
Just making it to state has cleared one hurdle, as the only match Dowden lost last season came in the sectional round, the last one before the state meet. So while a 24-1 record was outstanding for a freshman, it left Dowden wanting more.
"I was very happy to get through my sectional," Dowden said. "I was very nervous going in, because I had lost and it was so close last year. So I was really happy when I came out and got to state."
Helias coach Margaret Shimkus said that loss was helpful in the long run.
"She's been motivated all year long because that devastated her last year," Shimkus said.
Shimkus said the difference between last year and this is simple.
"Experience," she said. "Experience, which leads to confidence. She's confident in her shots."
Dowden agreed with that assessment.
"I think having my freshman year under my belt was a big help and I just worked on my groundstrokes to be more consistent," she said. "I think that helped me in the long run."
Shimkus said the key for Dowden Friday and Saturday is self-centered.
"She needs to concentrate on her game and what her assets are," Shimkus said. "We've been fine-tuning a couple little things (in practice) she did not feel went so well in sectionals. But she had such an excellent sectional match that I think she's ready."
And excellent is a good way to describe Dowden, who was a major factor when teams had to determine if their best players would compete in singles or doubles at the district meet.
"She's definitely the absolute best mid-Missouri tennis player in singles," Shimkus said. "People stayed away from her at districts. The Jays lined up their players in doubles and went that route, and a lot of teams chose to go that route, too. They just want to stay away from her."
Dowden's first-round match at state pits her against Maranda Miller of Webb City at 9 a.m. Friday at the Cooper Tennis Complex in Springfield. With a win, she'd face either Risa Takenaka of Francis Howell North or Janet Auclair of Fort Zumwalt East in the quarterfinals.
"I definitely have to take the initiative and be consistent and pick on my opponents' weaknesses, spotting that right off the bat," Dowden said.
Her coach said the last part, in particular, is one of Dowden's strengths.
"She can pick apart her opponent's weaknesses, if they have any, right away," Shimkus said. "She takes bits and pieces from everybody that she plays with and learns from it."
The semifinal matches and championship match are set for Saturday, with action getting under way at 9 a.m.
Check the state Class 2 singles championship bracket and updated results at mshsaa.org.