West Virginia State women’s tennis coach John Simms hadn’t seen his team play since March. The Yellow Jackets gave him the best welcome back possible.
Illness kept Simms in the hospital for 32 days and in physical therapy for three weeks. Meanwhile, the State women soldiered on through their season and, on Tuesday, pulled off an unprecedented feat in Mountain East Conference tennis.
The Yellow Jackets defeated Mercyhurst in the NCAA Division II Atlantic Regional tournament to reach the national tournament for the second straight year. Last year, WVSU became the first MEC team (or former West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference team, for that matter) to make the national bracket. This year, it became the first to do it twice.
No. 1 seed Kierstin Hensley’s energetic shouts became screams of joy after winning a break point against Mercyhurst’s Kayla Frost to give her that match and the Yellow Jackets a ticket to Sanlando Park in Altamonte Springs, Florida, the national tournament site.
It was a beautiful sight for Simms.
“The girls have done great,” he said. “Their loss to Charleston in the regular season woke them up a little bit and ever since they’ve been fighting harder and getting louder.”
Hensley’s voice is one of those whose volume has jumped. Normally reserved, her leadership has evolved and her cries of “Let’s go State!” after each point she won echoed throughout the Schoenbaum tennis courts in Kanawha City.
The junior from Ashland, Kentucky, came up with two crucial wins on Tuesday. She and doubles partner Laura Isbey defeated Kayla Frost and Sangeeta Roopan at No. 1, then Kayla McKnight and Chante’ Malo beat Athina Tsagkaraki and Hannah Wenzel at No. 3 to earn the doubles point.
Both of State’s doubles wins came in tiebreakers and McKnight and Malo were down 5-2 at one point before rallying for their victory.
In singles, after Nika Tadic won at No. 6 and Hanna Kruhlova won at No. 3, it was Hensley’s 6-3, 6-4 win over Frost at No. 1 that iced the competition.
“It’s honestly a dream,” she said. “All the glory to God. For this to be two years in a row is amazing. Last year it was never done before and we did it. This year, a repeat, that’s just crazy. I think that just shows how hard this team really works.”
From playing to coaching, this season has been a complete team effort for West Virginia State, especially considering Simms’ medical issues. Unable to be at practices or competitions, Simms has leaned on J.J. Casto as interim coach with the help of Jake Lorenz. Men’s coach Ryan Pulliam also has helped when he could.
Simms would advise away from the court, discussing what each player needed to work on to get them to this historic point. At 21-4 on the year, State set the program record for wins in a season.
“They’ve done a really good job completing what we got started last fall,” Simms said.
Hensley lauded all her coaches for working as hard as they have to help the team get through such a tough situation.
“Honestly, it was a little bit scary,” she said. “[Simms] has been there through everything. J.J., Ryan and Jake have given up so much, I really want to thank them. Without them, I don’t think we’re here right now.”
Where they are is back at the national level. The Yellow Jackets fell in the opening round of the national tournament last year in Surprise, Arizona, and they want to take the next step this year in Florida.
“I’m just so happy,” Simms said. “I’m happy for them. They’ve earned it. They deserve it.”