By BEN JOHNSON
The winter months were rough on Amanda Stone’s tennis team. Sure the weather was frigid – and is just now starting to warm up – but eligibility and injuries were also thorns in the side of the RiverHawks.
“We’ve been two players down almost the whole season,” Stone said. “We beat Drury one player down. Houda Bellamine was injured during the match, and after that trip she was put in a boot for three weeks. With two players out, we had to scramble to find the right combinations and basically weather the storm.”
On top of that, NSU had to play a waiting game when it came to getting Valeriia Efimenko eligible to finally play during the 2014 campaign. She was finally able to clear all the red tape in early March.
“It made a big impact on the team to get Valeriia Efimenko eligible to play,” Stone said. “Even as a freshman she is able to fill a big role in our lineup. She is competitive at her line and provides much needed depth. We are finally able to set our doubles teams and start developing chemistry.”
Now, with Bellamine back on the court and Efimenko allowed to participate, the RiverHawks are within a victory of securing the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association regular season crown. The RiverHawks will take on Lindenwood Saturday in an attempt to secure the title.
“The opportunity to win NSU’s first MIAA championship is very exciting,” Stone said. “It has been one of our goals since August so being in the position to achieve it is a great accomplishment for the team.”
Being in position to claim the MIAA championship comes a year after the RiverHawks were climbing an uphill battle against Southwest Baptist during the 2013 season. The year, though, NSU knocked off Southwest Baptist, 5-4, during the regular season, setting the RiverHawks up for a league championship.
“It shows how much we’ve improved over the last year,” Stone said. “It’s also an honor for me as a coach to bring a conference championship to NSU. As for the team, I think it’s an important step for the program. The team has put in the work and it’s great to see it paying off.”
Leading the charge for the 31st-ranked RiverHawks (16-4, 8-1 MIAA) right now is Kristina Savchenkov, Martina Bruzikova and Barbora Jirickova. The trio is a combined 44-9 this season.
“Kris, Tina, and Barb have been solid for us all season. We relied heavily on them in the early part of the season and they stepped up when we really needed them,” Stone said. “All three of them are continuing to play well and we will still count on them as we wind down.”
One of Savchenkov’s victories was against Southwest Baptist’s Fanni Varga, who entered the match ranked fourth in the country. Savchenkov beat Varga in No. 1 singles play, 7-6 (7-3), 7-5.
“Kris winning that match was a turning point for her as a 1 singles player,” Stone said. “She has been steadily improving the whole year and it seemed to all come together for her against SBU. I’m really proud for her.”
After completing regular season play, the RiverHawks will wait until April 25-27 to compete at the MIAA Championships in Springfield, Mo. And barring any upsets, NSU and Southwest Baptist are likely to meet in the finals for a rematch in the budding rivalry.
“It’s very important we come out ready to fight until the last shot. The toughness we’ve been developing all year in practice and our strength and conditioning program played a big role in the matches and will be a big factor again,” Stone said of what it would take to beat Southwest Baptist again. “Doubles will be key. We need to secure two of the doubles points. I think our doubles will be stronger in the next match, as we should be playing with more confidence. Basically, talent-wise we stack up, the match is going to come down to toughness and the team that comes out ready to win.”