Cyclones to face Commodores in Top-15 matchup at ITA Championships


Daniel Jacobi II

Iowa State goes up against Drake University at the Roger Knapp Tennis Center on Jan. 14, 2023.

Championship season beckons early this year for the No. 14 Iowa State tennis team as they make the trip northwest to take part in the ITA Indoor National Championships.

The Cyclones are currently at their highest team ranking in program history and will head into the tournament with a 6-1 record, the lone loss coming at the expense of fellow participants Auburn a couple of weeks ago.

To qualify for the Championships, the Cyclones upset both UCLA and Miami at the ITA Kickoff Tournament the weekend of Jan. 28. The back-to-back pair of victories was the highest-ranked team that Iowa State has beaten in its program history.

Head coach Boomer Saia has been here before with this team, having now reached two consecutive NCAA Championships with the same group of players from last season returning again this year. The setting is different, however, as the Cyclones will be playing at the National Indoors for the first time.

“I would say it’s excitement,” Saia said. “[We’re] looking forward to the competition, to match ourselves against the best teams in the country, and [I’m] just excited for the opportunity. Being present, enjoying the moment, but also rolling up our sleeves to prepare for Vandy.”

The Cyclones’ first-round matchup will be against the No. 9 seed Vanderbilt, in a match that will mark the first meeting between the two teams. For Saia, the match will also be an opportunity to face familiar competition, as he was part of the Commodores’ coaching staff in 2017 when they reached the semifinals of the NCAA Championships.

Saia called the dual “a family matchup” due to the relationship that he has with Commodores’ head coach Aleke Tsoubanos. The pair were assistants together during Saia’s time at Vanderbilt, with Tsoubanos graduating to take on the head role in 2020 from her former coach Geoff McDonald.

“She’s incredible, she really did a great job of taking me under her wing,” Saia said of Tsoubanos’ influence. “We’ve become really good friends ever since. Her son was a ring bearer at my wedding, and I love and respect Aleke so much.”

The Commodores have yet to lose in dual play this season, carrying a 4-0 record into the Championships. They punched their ticket to Seattle by knocking off favorites North Carolina State, who were ranked third in the nation at the time, 4-3.

“They’re [a] very well coached, disciplined, and hard-fighting crew,” Saia said about the Commodores’ prospects. “So we’re going to have to earn every point we can get. There are no easy matchups at all, and again, that’s a tribute to coaching and the culture that they have.”

The Commodores currently have four of their singles players ranked within the top 100 in the nation. Leading the pack is No. 27 Bridget Stammel with an 18-4 mark on the year, and has gone 3-0 in dual matches for the Commodores. Following her, Celia-Belle Mohr, ranked No. 34, has gone 16-7 so far this season and posted strong play in the duals with a 3-1 record at No. 1 singles.

Anna Ross and Holly Staff come in at No. 66 and 85, respectively, in the national rankings, and both players have prior postseason experience for the Commodores.

As a doubles pair, they earned All-American honors last season by reaching the quarterfinals of the NCAA Championships and helping Vanderbilt get to the same stage in the team bracket. They both recorded the final two wins against the Wolfpack to help the Commodores qualify for Seattle.

For the Cyclones, Thasaporn Naklo and Ange Oby Kajuru are looking to lead the way in singles. Naklo, who moved up to No. 42 in the singles rankings on Wednesday, has gone 4-2 in dual play so far. She owns a 31-6 record across all matches on the year, headlining Iowa State with an 0.838 winning percentage.

In doubles, Naklo and partner Anna Supapitch Kuearum have had a strong start to the season, sporting a perfect 3-0 record and are currently projected to be their team’s #1 pairing against Vanderbilt.

Kajuru and junior Miska Kadleckova are both undefeated in singles play this season and are also on their own winning streaks. Kajuru was featured in the national rankings for the first time this season, jumping up to No. 53 after going 6-0 for Iowa State.

Kadleckova checked in at No. 123 and is 7-0 going into this weekend. The Slovakia native recorded her 100th win last month and became the fastest player in program history to reach that mark.

The Cyclones currently have three players and pairs ranked nationally, joining North Carolina as one of two schools in the nation to achieve that feat. Iowa State’s players have also defeated a total of 22 ranked opponents this season, with Kadleckova and Kajuru leading in that category, having both taken down seven stretching back to the fall.

For Saia, the match looks to be a tight affair, with neither side seeming to have an edge in any of the matchups. However, the breaking point he hopes will fall towards the beginning.

“I think setting the tone in doubles is massive,” Saia said, “Whether we win or lose, our approach to that is going to be really big [in terms of] setting the tone for the rest of the match. And then I think we’re going to have opportunities all the way through the lineup [in singles]. Can we have three to four kids really step up in those positions or let alone all six, fighting for each other a chance.”

Should they get past the Commodores, the Cyclones will then have the possibility of playing No. 1 Texas in the second round, in what will be an early test of conference action for both schools. The Longhorns entered this season as defending national champions, and haven’t dropped a dual so far by going 6-0 in their schedule.

Saia says that he’s not worried about the second round just yet, having his sights set on the matchup against the Commodores.

“I think honestly, all of our focus is on one match at a time here,” Saia said, “I think if you start looking too far ahead or behind or whatever that is, you get yourself in trouble. So I think everything is being geared towards Vandy, and we’ll kind of see where it goes from there.”

All questions will be answered at 5:30 pm CT Friday, when the Cyclones and Commodores meet in the first round at the Nordstrom Tennis Center. A livestream of all matches played throughout the weekend can be found on the ITA’s website here.