April 22, 2008
By Darren Shimp
Eastern Washington University women's tennis player Kasey Knox comes from a tennis pedigree. Her parents play tennis. Her grandfather played at Central Washington University. Her brother is a high school phenom at her alma mater in Richland. Her sister is a freshman on the Portland State squad.
Was she just born with a tennis racquet in her hand, grunting like the Monica Seles of yore?
"Not really," said the senior biology major Knox, who will be graduating this June. "I didn't start playing a lot until I was 13 and had played soccer up until then. I always played tennis, but mostly in the summer. When you hit the crossroads in youth soccer, you have to try out for club teams and travel everywhere...my parents said, `You can do that or you can play tennis; you have to play a sport.'"
And she is definitely not a grunter.
So she chose the sport which her family loved and whose property in West Richland, Wash., includes two tennis courts -- one made of clay, one grass.
However, no tennis court holds up well in the elements, regardless of its surface.
As the random snow accumulations continued into late April, the Eastern women were never able to have a home match on the outdoor courts and were relegated to using the less-than-polished courts in the Jim Thorpe Fieldhouse.
"It's unfortunate since it's so beautiful," said Knox of the pristine outdoor surfaces. "I just wish it were nice outside."
In a spat of good news, the forecast for Friday (April 25) calls for mostly sunny skies and 78 degrees in Sacramento, Calif., site of this year's Big Sky Conference Championship from Friday-Sunday (April 25-27) -- a drastic contrast to the Eagles' normal climate.
The first thought that comes to mind is this will give other schools an unfair advantage, since Eastern has not had much experience this season outdoors.
"It's actually a neutral site," said Knox. "Most of the other schools are in the same boat as we are, like the Montana schools. I can almost guarantee they're not playing outside.
"Also, lots of the schools in our conference are in high altitude, like Pocatello (Idaho), and the balls really fly."
The Eagles are playing the same opponent (Montana) in the quarterfinals as the same seed (No. 5) at the same venue (Gold River Racquet Club near Sacramento, Calif.) as last season's Big Sky Championship. In version 2008, EWU is hoping to snap a 29-match postseason losing streak, dating to 1994. The Eagles lost to Montana 4-3 in 2007, with Knox losing the deciding No. 1 singles match in a nail-biting tight 7-5 third set to the Grizzly Liz Walker.
"Our main goal is to take Montana," said Knox. "That would be optimal. I just want everyone to play good and feel good. I'm a firm believer in baby steps; let's get done what we can do."
It was only April 12 when EWU traveled to Missoula and fell 5-2 to the rival Grizzlies. Knox notched one of the wins by paying Walker back for last year's BSC Championship defeat by breezing through the final two sets 6-1, 6-1 after dropping the first set 6-2. Two of her teammates' losses came in three-set marathons.
"We were just so close to beating them," said Knox of the defeat earlier this month.
Regardless of the outcome in California, Knox has cherished her time as an Eagle and knows the team is in good hands with the underclassmen coming back.
"The team is awesome," said Knox. "We have two freshmen and other girls that we've been with for years. We all know each other really well. I'd say our team chemistry couldn't be any better.
"We are all mostly from the Pacific Northwest area, so we all grew up playing each other in juniors too. "
The 2007 team went where Knox led them, as the squad went 0-9 in dual matches when Knox lost at No. 1 singles. This season's team has spread the wealth of wins, and has rallied for three victories when Knox faltered, taking the pressure off the senior leader.
"We've got a lot of players that can step it up at different times," said Eagles interim assistant coach Dale Silha, who has spent a good amount of time with the team, as Eagles interim head coach Darren Haworth works with the men's team.
"That's been key compared to last year. There is a better depth of players that can step it up on any given day."
Which Eagle will Knox be passing the proverbial leadership torch to?
"Probably Amanda (Amanda Mankovits)," said Knox. "She'll be a senior next year. She's loud, bubbly and can get everyone fired up. We've all had rough matches, but she's played probably the best I've seen her play since her freshman year...and she's also my doubles partner."
Silha, who has been with the program since the end of January, echoed similar sentiments.
"She's very energetic and vocal, getting a lot of good, positive energy going," said Silha. "I think her role will not be by being the best player, but instead she will lead in different ways. She's going to be someone who gets the girls fired up and pumped up. It's her role to take if she wants to take it on."
With Knox's senior leadership and Mankovits' outspoken nature serving as inspirations to the team, the days are numbered until that postseason losing streak comes to a screeching halt.