In their first seasons as varsity players, seniors Chelsey Stewart and Erika Blackwell have been a pleasant surprise for Vandalia tennis coach Kevin Schroeder.
Having combined for eight of the team’s 25 singles wins this season (32 percent), the two are now counted among the most important players on the team, each having once won a decisive singles match during the season.
Schroeder said it was at the beginning of this season, when they both realized they had a chance to latch on to the varsity squad, that their games began to dramatically improve.
For Blackwell, who has played for the Lady Vandals since she was a freshman, the process started during the summer, when she worked with Jane Kinney on small parts of her game.
“I improved a lot over the summer,” Blackwell said. “I learned to move around on the court and get squared up – basically the same things that coach tells us.”
Stewart, who joined the team last season and picked up the game almost immediately, said it was gaining experience that has allowed her to become a successful player.
She played in one varsity match last season, but has been one of Vandalia’s top four singles players in the lineup in every match she has attended this season – including appearing at No. 1 a handful of times.
“She hasn’t been playing very long, but when she started, she was very good,” Blackwell said of her teammate. “She has a good attitude, and never gives up on it.”
And that’s because Stewart never believes she will lose.
She said maintaining rallies with her opponent is the key to her success, and she has a very easy way of making sure that happens.
“You have to picture yourself winning,” Stewart said. “I have the state of mind that I’m going to win.
“I like to rally,” she said. “It’s really fulfilling when you rally, because you feel like you earned (the point).”
Schroeder said Stewart is without question the type of player who can sustain a rally, and that has contributed to her four singles wins and three doubles wins this season.
“She gets to a lot of tennis balls that others wouldn’t get to, and I think she anticipates where the opponent is going to hit the ball,” he said. “She is quick enough to get to shots that the opponent would think would score.”
Blackwell, meanwhile, is slower on the court, but uses a consistent – and hard-hitting – return game to earn her points.
Playing in the lowest singles position may sound like nothing special at face value, but the more wins a team can get from its No. 6 player – which Blackwell has done in four matches this season – the more likely the team is to win.
Not surprisingly, the Lady Vandals have won three of those matches.
“She’s improved a lot this year,” Stewart said. “She’s been keeping it going, and you can tell that she’s been practicing.”
Like Stewart, Blackwell is also able to maintain rallies, and Blackwell does so by mostly staying in the back half of the court.
Because when she doesn’t, there’s a good chance the point will end in her opponent’s favor.
“I usually try to stay back,” she said. “I’d rather play in the back, because I’m not a fast runner, so they usually get them behind me (if I’m up front).”
With their careers winding down, both players said they will likely to continue playing recreational tennis later in life, and both plan to attend college, with Blackwell hoping to study X-ray tech at Kaskaskia College and Stewart undecided.
And if they make their schooling transition as easily as they made their tennis transition, success will certainly be in their futures.