With returners who have won at a high level, the Hayden tennis team is positioned to do some special things as this season heads into the playoff stretch.
Ainzley Zulueta is back to defend her 4A state title, having won last year as just a freshman. Experienced doubles teams and a dedication to positivity and mental toughness give the Wildcats high hopes as they prepare for the Centennial League meet Monday with Regionals just a few days off.
Hayden girls tennis captures elusive prize
The Hayden girl’s tennis team has been one to reckon with on the 4A level for years. But one particular accomplishment always eluded them. The Wildcats had never won the Topeka City Tennis Championship. They added that prize to the bulging Hayden trophy case this year.
Technically, the Wildcats shared a three-way split of the city title in 2009. But with first place finishes in both No. 1 singles and No. 1 doubles, Hayden recently claimed the city meet outright.
“It’s extra special because we’ve worked so hard to get where we are,” said eighth-year head coach Christy Sheetz. “It’s always been such a goal of mine, because to be a little 4A school and go and compete against the bigger schools here in Topeka and always be so close but never quite get it. We’ve gotten second. We’ve gotten third before. But this is the first time we’ve won it outright.”
“Winning city meant a lot to me,” said junior Lauren Sandstrom. “I’ve been doing this for three years now. My freshman year, we had the chance, but our team wasn’t as good as we are now. We just all came together, played how we know how to play, played our game, and went out and won.
“It just shows everyone that, here at Hayden, we might be a smaller school, but we definitely have a big fight in us.”
Sandstrom and sophomore Emily Sheetz — the daughter of head coach — came out on top of the city No. 1 doubles field. Zulueta, meanwhile, claimed the city No. 1 singles title for the second year running.
Returning pieces will be big for the postseason push
Zulueta hasn’t lost a lot in her short high school career, but she will face a foe she has not yet conquered at the Centennial League meet on Monday at Emporia. Two-time 6A state champ Jill Harkin, of Manhattan, stands in the way of a league championship. Zulueta said the two have faced each other a few times in high school meets and junior events, but she has yet to defeat the champion from Manhattan.
“I would like for Ainzley to have a win against Jill Harkin,” said Sheetz. “I know that is a goal of hers and I would do anything to help her accomplish that.”
“She’s a really good player,” Zulueta said of the Manhattan senior. “It would be great if I could beat her.”
Regardless of how that match turns out, the Wildcats are positioned to do something else they haven’t done before: win a state championship. With the defending winner at No. 1 singles and a No. 1 doubles team that qualified for state a year ago, the pieces are in place.
“We get better by pushing each other every day, supporting each other every day,” said Sheetz, who said she hopes to see all six members of the varsity qualify for state. “This year, we’re into really positive mental attitudes. We never give up. We always have a positive mindset.”
Playing no. 2 singles is freshman Grace Funk, a player Sheetz said does whatever it takes to win.
The No. 2 doubles team pairs the Wildcats’ two seniors, Bri Barnett and Sloane Sims.
“They bring leadership in a way that you just feel when you’re with them,” Sheetz said of Barnett and Sims. “They are great cheerleaders for everyone, but they also bring those expectations that seniors bring, to show up on time and that everyone is on task and on the same page.”
Leadership may come from the seniors, but the tone on the court is set by the younger players, Sheetz said.
“I think what the younger players do, because they’re accomplished players, is they bring an intensity that everyone else has to raise their level to meet,” Sheetz said. “To hit with them, you have to raise your game up a level.”
Ainzley Zulueta won a state championship as a freshman
Zulueta wound up atop the 4A ranks, but she didn’t enter her freshman year brimming with confidence. She said the high school game is different enough from junior tournaments that there was a learning curve.
“I knew it would be tougher. There’s a lot more matches in a tournament — it’s all in one day,” Zulueta said about last season. “Once you get off the court, it’s right back on. I realized how tough the high school season can be physically. And also mentally, because you don’t have time to process what happens.”
Sheetz praised Zulueta for the improvement she has made since last year’s state meet.
“You wouldn’t think with someone like Ainzley could grow like that, because she won state as a freshman,” Sheetz said. “But there’s always room for improvement. She spent a lot of time in the summer working on her game.”
“It’s so much better than last year,” Zulueta said. “I understand what’s going on and mentally I’m more prepared for it. I know what to expect at these all-day tournaments.”
Zulueta said her ultimate goal is to match Hayden grad Brooklyn Hunter’s string of four state championships from 2015-2018. But she adds that pressure accompanies high expectations.
“I was super nervous coming into this season because people would come up to me and say, ‘Are you going to win state this year?'” Zulueta said. “All I can say is just, ‘Hopefully,’ because I don’ t want to be too confident. You never know what happens in tennis.”
Zulueta said putting the team first requires that she always set a high standard.
“I try to put in a lot of outside work so I can get better myself so that I can push other people,” the sophomore said. “I want to do the best in my (role) so that I can benefit the whole team. I may not be the most vocal leader, but I can show it with results and actions.”
One year of becoming closer together has this team set to make a run
Accomplishments like winning the Topeka City Tennis Championship bring notoriety to a group that might otherwise fly under the radar at Hayden.
“With so many good sports teams, not a lot of people recognize tennis,” Sandstrom said “They might not know who all is out for tennis or how it’s going. So, walking around school having people tell you ‘Congratulations’ feels good.”
Sandstrom said the competition the Wildcats play, including the city and league meets, prepare them for the postseason.
“Playing these big 6A and 5A schools from Topeka really prepares us because, there are really good 4A schools, but we also play even better 6A schools,” the Wildcats’ lone junior said. “So, getting used to that kind of game, sped up, more intense, it gets us ready to go out there and compete.”
Hard work and challenging competition are producing a tight-knit team, Sandstrom said.
“Last year we came together towards the end, but this year even from the start we’ve been bonded more, and our games are so much better,” Sandstrom said. “The doubles teams, we understand how to play together better than last season. This year means a lot and it feels great to see the way we’ve improved.”
“Playing with this team is so much fun,” Zulueta added. “We’ve grown as a team. Last year two of us were freshmen and we didn’t have any seniors. This group has grown really close over the past two seasons.”