West Virginia State University women’s tennis player Kierstin Hensley was on track to make history during her senior season with the Yellow Jackets. Four matches into her 2020 campaign, those aspirations were cut short.
The coronavirus pandemic resulted in the cancellation of the remainder of all NCAA athletics, jeopardizing Hensley’s collegiate tennis career.
Hensley, a team captain from Ashland, Kentucky, is the only senior on State’s eight-woman roster. She has been granted another year of eligibility by the NCAA due to the ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic. Yet she may forego that eligibility because she has a graduate school spot waiting for her at Shawnee State University in occupational therapy.
Hensley said having her senior season cut short after only four matches was difficult, not only as an individual, but as a team leader.
“It all happened so fast and [the hardest part] is not being able to play with this group of girls,” Hensley said. “Not being able to lead [the freshmen] and show them the way about how we compete, that’s hard.”
Hensley was on her way to Mountain East Conference history in her four seasons with the Yellow Jackets (2016-2020). After winning the women’s singles title at the Intercollegiate Tennis Association Atlantic Region Championships in September, she became the first WVSU women’s tennis player in program history to rank as high as 12th in the ITA.
With 117 total career wins (singles and doubles combined), Hensley was 27 wins away from matching WVSU’s career win record of 144.
Last season, Hensley was a strong contender for MEC Player of the Year honors, but a regular-season loss to eventual player of the year Kristine Gedeshidze of the University of Charleston squandered her chances. This season, though, WVSU coach John Simms said Hensley easily could have earned MEC Player of the Year honors — and much more — if the season wasn’t canceled.
“She was within reach to finish as the highest ranking player in the history of the conference,” Simms said. “She [could have] set the school record for singles wins, doubles wins and overall wins. She was in the running to be an All-American.”
Hensley’s 2020 ITA ranking is yet to be determined. Historically, the ITA committee released its rankings at the end of each season. Now that there is no season to end, Simms said the committee that determines rankings will meet but has not yet done so.
Simms knew Hensley was having a special and historic year. That was, until everything was shut down. He said the news of the season’s cancellation was especially hard on his only senior.
“[When the season was officially canceled] Kierstin, off and on, spent the night and into the morning crying,” Simms said. “The other girls did, too, but it was extra tough because she was the lone senior. All these things within her reach were taken away.”
Despite the individual goals she could have set in her senior season, Hensley seemed more focused on team goals. She said her main goal this season was to win a conference championship and move deep into the postseason.
“[Winning conference] was something we always talked about in practice,” Hensley said. “Getting to nationals for the third time in a row was my next biggest goal. I definitely could have done that with this group of girls.”
Hensley also reflected on her experiences during the pandemic and focused on the positives — the good things she took away from her time at West Virginia State. After the season was officially canceled, Hensley talked about her teammates and their support for her during unfortunate circumstances.
“My doubles partner, Chante Malo, as soon as she heard our season was over, she called me and she was running to the tennis courts where I was because she knew I would be really upset,” Hensley said. “I was crying and she just gave me a big hug. That was something I’m going to remember for a long time.”
Hensley has not yet decided whether she will return to the Yellow Jackets to fulfill her extended eligibility. However, with a wedding scheduled for June and grad school lined up in the fall, it would be no surprise if Hensley decides to end her collegiate tennis career. Despite that, she said she’s thankful, no matter what the future holds.
“I’m just blessed to have so many opportunities, even after all this stuff has been happening,” Hensley said. “I’m not really sure what’s going to happen but I’m going to do what’s best for myself and my future husband.”
If Hensley forgoes her year of eligibility, Simms said it will likely be a disadvantage for State next season. Other schools will have fifth-year seniors returning that the Yellow Jackets will not have. He talked about the impact Hensley had on his team and he hopes Hensley decides to return. However, he expressed his understanding of the situation.
“Kierstin is the smartest, hardest-working player I have coached,” Simms said. “She’s a great team leader and an even better person. She’s aware of the fact that we want her back, I just don’t want to push her too much right now.”
Reflecting on her experience with the coronavirus pandemic, Hensley offered advice to current and future collegiate athletes.
“It can all be taken away from you at any second,” Hensley said. “No matter what you think the possibilities could be or couldn’t be, just enjoy what you have and put everything you have into it.”