PELLA — When Newton girls tennis coach Erick Zehr took over three years ago, the Cardinals’ program was in shambles. The team was tough to watch, and they hadn’t won a meet in three years. On Monday afternoon, the Cardinals completed their full-circle turn around under the Zehr’s leadership by winning the Little Hawkeye Conference tournament championship.
“I’m lucky because I get to come to practice every day and work with a fantastic group of girls,” Zehr said. “They have so much personality and heart, and I cherish every day we get to work together. It is what makes days like today so special. If we were supremely talented but heartless, these wins would be empty and hollow. We don’t have overwhelming ability, so the fact that every one of these girls gutted out tough wins to contribute to an incredible accomplishment, it was a very proud day for their coach.”
This tournament championship is especially sweet for Zehr, who coached the team within one point of winning the tournament two years ago. The Cardinals certainly solidified their place as one of the premier programs in the conference, and they proved that their second regular season title in three years is well deserved.
To begin the day, the first thing the Cardinals did was receive their seedings. The tournament consisted of two singles brackets and two doubles brackets, with each player only able to compete in one or the other. Rather than frontload the singles or the doubles bracket, Zehr decided to spread out his talent evenly. The usual number two player for the Cards, Jennifer Ventling, played in the flight one singles bracket and was given the No. 3 seed. Krystal Mapes, typically the No. 4 for the Cards played in the other singles bracket and was seeded fourth out of the seven girls.
The Cardinals’ flight one doubles team was Katelyn Camp and Katelin Klyn, seeded third. And Holly Vander Pol and Caitlin Combs were the second Cardinals’ doubles team. They received the two seed.
Coach Zehr explained the significance of starting hot.
“The single most important match of the day is your first match,” he said. “If you lose your first match, you are sent to the lower half of the bracket, and the highest you can place is fifth. If you win your first match, the lowest you can place is fourth, with at least two shots at placing higher.”
Ventling rolled through her first match in less than 20 minutes, winning 6-0, 6-1. Mapes had a difficult match to start her day, but she found her groove with a 6-4, 6-2 win.
“Krystal’s match was a crucial victory, because it sent Pella Christian’s player to the bottom bracket, and Newton’s to the top bracket,” Zehr said. “PC was one of the main three contenders entering the day. So this was a pivotal match right out of the gate.”
Vanderl Pol/Combs smoked the team from Oskaloosa, not dropping a game in two sets with a 6-0, 6-0 win. Camp/Klyn struggled with unforced errors early, but they found their groove late to gut out a 6-4, 6-3 win.
Ventling’s second round opponent was Grinnell’s Lily Hamilton, who is arguably the best player in the conference this season. Ventling played well, but Hamilton was just too tough for her to handle, and Ventling fell 1-6, 3-6.
An interesting situation arose in Mapes’ second round matchup. Mapes was up 4-1, 40-30 in the opening set when her opponent, Jackie Johnson, broke some strings on her racket. By rule, the point should have gone to Mapes, which would have put her ahead 5-1. However, due to some confusion with the rule, the girls replayed the point, and Johnson rallied back to win that game and the rest of the set 7-5. She rolled through the second set 6-1, sending Mapes to the third place match.
The Camp/Klyn team drew the team from Pella Christian in its second round matchup. This was a bit of a revenge match for the Newton girls, who fell 1-6, 0-6 to the same team earlier this season, but once they shook off the cobwebs in their first match, they were unstoppable. Down, 4-5 with Camp serving, things looked bleak. But Camp rolled through that game, which proved to be the turning point. Newton won 7-5, 6-3 to advance.
The Cards’ doubles team of Vander Pol/Combs won its first set 6-3, fell in the second 3-6. The girls played a lengthy tiebreak, but they ultimately fell to the duo from PC, 7-10.
At this point, the team total favored Grinnell over all other schools because they had both singles players with in-roads to the championship games and the doubles teams playing well. However, the Tigers’ flight one doubles team lost in straight sets to Osky, and the second doubles team lost a three-set match to set up a showdown with Vander Pol/Combs.
In the final round of matches, Ventling was forced to play No. 1 seed Michaela Pearson from Norwalk after she was upset in the previous round. Ventling battled but lost 1-6, 3-6, placing her fourth. Mapes battled and came away with the tough victory in her match to grant her third place in the tournament.
The final two matches of the day were the Cardinals’ doubles matches. The Camp/Klyn team would battle for the championship, and the Vander Pol/Combs team would play for third. Both teams needed victories for the Cards to win the tournament. Camp/Klyn battled from behind to win the first set tiebreak 7-6 (10-8). That team rolled through its second set 6-2 for the doubles titles.
“They were by far the best doubles team present today, and they absolutely deserved their gold medals,” Zehr said. “They beat the other two top teams in the conference in straight sets, doing it the hard way, but leaving no doubt to who the deserving champions were.”
The Vander Pol/Combs team needed to take care of business to secure the title for the Cardinals. The team won its first set 6-4, but it fell 3-6 in the second, setting up a third set tiebreak for the team title. Although the girls were down 4-8 at one point, they battled to win six consecutive points to take the win 10-8.
Zehr mentioned how much he trusted the girls after the win.
“One thing I mentioned to the girls is that most coaches will stack their strong players in the same side to give them the best chance at going deep in two of the flights, while leaving the other two weaker,” Zehr said. “We were the only school that spread our talents into all four flights. I told the girls that I thought this gave us the best chance to win, but mostly, I did it because I trust the girls. Spreading your abilities out is risky, because everyone has to play well and win when they need to. I wanted the results to be in the girls hands because I trusted them. It was a big leap of faith as a coach to put it in their hands entirely, but like I said, I trust them. I’m lucky to get to coach talented, strong players like I do, and I wanted the meet to be decided by them, not me.”
The Cardinals will play in the regional/district meet at Des Moines Lincoln at 9 a.m. on Saturday.