Coach Kelcy McKenna has a saying that she uses with her University of Wisconsin women’s tennis players to encourage their growth: Try to be what you can’t see yet.
Two years ago, what McKenna and the Badgers couldn’t see yet was a team that climbed from the depths of a program-worst season to execute a dramatic turnaround.
In 2017, they finished 4-16 in dual meets — the fewest UW victories in 42 years of record keeping — and 0-11 in Big Ten Conference play in McKenna’s first year leading the team. Last spring brought only marginal improvement in the records: 9-14 and 3-8.
The players that McKenna brought in to the Badgers roster over the past two years were being asked to make a leap of faith, one that they hoped would produce positive results quickly.
The ones who joined are reaping the rewards now. The Badgers, ranked 35th nationally, will make their first NCAA tournament appearance in 14 years on Saturday when they play Syracuse in the opening round in Palo Alto, California.
“It’s a dream come true,” said freshman Ava Markham, who has forged a 19-4 records in dual meets, playing mostly at No. 4 singles. “When I came on my visit here, I told all the coaches that that was a goal of mine, to be playing in the NCAAs as a team and then maybe as an individual player one day.
“After not going to Big Tens the last couple of seasons, the turnaround has been incredible. And I’m really excited for the future of this program.”
So is McKenna, who came to UW in 2016 from New Mexico intrigued with the possibilities for the program but not sure how long it would take to get it back on a national stage.
At 18-5 overall and 9-2 in league duals, this season became the quick answer.
“I was really excited when we got here because I knew we could continue to build something special,” McKenna said. “For us, we’re not really sure where our path is going to take us. But we know that if we’re really consistent with the work that we put in every day, we’re hopeful that we can continue to build and get better.”
McKenna, an All-American at Arizona State in 2009, started putting the pieces in place by bringing on Megan Falcon as assistant coach. Falcon, the 2007 SEC player of the year at LSU, reached No. 1 nationally in singles and was a three-time All-American before starting a pro career.
They then looked for the players that would engineer a shift in the program’s future. Sara Castellano came on as a transfer from Kansas State and has played at No. 1 singles this season.
West Bend’s Lexi Keberle, the state’s No. 1 prep player in 2016-17, joined the team last season and became a first-team All-Big Ten performer as a freshman.
Markham, from New Jersey, was No. 43 nationally when she started at UW this season. She’s 26-10 with the Badgers, including 19-4 in dual meets.
No. 3 player Anna Makarova transferred from James Madison after last season.
“We’ve just been really fortunate that the players that we’ve recruited have really believed in consistent work and how the process is more important than the results,” McKenna said.
Continuing this season into May is nice, she conceded. UW plays Syracuse, which is making its third NCAA appearance in four years, at 11 a.m. Saturday. No. 3 Stanford faces New Mexico State afterward, and the first-round winners meet at 2 p.m. Sunday for a spot in the final 16.
The Badgers’ last NCAA appearance was in 2005. Their last victory was in the first round in 2002.
Players think this is just the start of big things for the program.
“I think the sky’s the limit,” Markham said. “I think after this year, the team has grown together. We’ve gotten really close. And I’m just excited for the bonds that we will continue to make with each other.”
Keberle, who is 14-6 in the No. 2 singles spot after going 13-5 at No. 1 last season, said the coaches have pushed players outside of their comfort zones in practice to get them to reach higher levels.
They’re becoming the team that, two years ago, they couldn’t see.
“I think this is definitely the start of a new era for this program,” Keberle said.