In-state rivalry renewed in Cyclones’ opening NCAA match against Bulldogs


Daniel Jacobi II

Thasaporn Naklo runs up towards the net to try and get to the ball during her match against Drake University at the Roger Knapp Tennis Center on Jan. 14, 2023.

Adarsh Tamma, Sports Reporter

Iowa State tennis marks a major milestone over the weekend, as it will play host to the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history.

In a season of firsts for the 12th-ranked Cyclones, the NCAA Selection Show brought another piece of history. As the No. 11 seeds in this year’s tournament, they will start their postseason journey in front of their home fans against in-state rival Drake. The Cyclones will also play host to LSU and Wisconsin, who will meet in the other first-round match of the Ames regional.

Iowa State has now qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the last three years and enters with a regular season record of 18-5.

For Iowa State head coach Boomer Saia, Monday’s news was a source of excitement and the culmination of his tenure in Ames.

“It’s something that you work for each and every day,” Saia said. “It was a pretty awesome moment for our team [and] us as a staff. Everyone has collectively bought in and worked towards something like this, so to have the opportunity to play in front of our fans and play the first two rounds at home, it means a lot.”

Now in his fifth year at the helm of the Cyclone program, Saia has slowly guided his team into the national conversation. Before his arrival in Ames, Iowa State had never registered more than two wins in conference play. The Cyclones won two Big 12 matches in Saia’s first year, then four each in 2021 and 2022 and established a new program record this year by finishing the conference campaign with a 7-2 mark.

The Cyclones have gone through the gauntlet this season, going 10-4 against teams that qualified for the NCAA Tournament a year ago and recording some memorable victories along the way. In February, they beat UCLA and Miami, both also ranked in the national polls, back-to-back to qualify for the ITA National Championships for the first time.

In Seattle, Iowa State continued its ascent, making a run to the semifinals. The Cyclones defeated No. 9 Vanderbilt in the first round then produced a monumental upset by taking down top-ranked Texas 4-1. Prior to that meeting, the Cyclones had never won against the Longhorns, who are the two-time defending national champions. In fact, prior to Saia’s arrival in Ames, Iowa State had never beaten a Big 12 opponent from the state of Texas, going a combined 0-89 in all previous matchups.

“This group has taken a step every year,” Saia said. “Three years ago we made our first tournament. The second year, we had some really great wins; I think we were 20th in the country. This year, we took an awesome step – Final Four of Indoors, ranked No. 4 in the country and now hosting [the NCAA Tournament]. It’s [been] a pretty cool progression. Great things happen when you really buy into a vision and a belief.”

For their performances in conference play, the Cyclones earned the No. 3 seed in the Big 12 Tournament, finishing behind Texas and Oklahoma in the league standings. Iowa State rolled past Kansas in the first round but fell to the No. 13 Sooners in a hard-fought, seven-match affair. The Cyclones won the doubles point to start things out but dropped three out of four in singles play to lose 4-3.

“I told them that it’s always difficult to lose, but believe it or not, we did take a huge step this weekend,” Saia said on what he told his team after the loss to Oklahoma. “Sometimes, you have to take steps in losses. We won the doubles point, and we didn’t three weeks ago when we were in Norman. In the last match on, [we were] a couple points from winning it and fell a little short, but we actually did take a big step in how we performed at each spot. We had five three-setters and took a doubles point, and so we put ourselves in really, really good positions against a quality team.”

At the end of the league season, the Cyclones took home more hardware, as five players were named to either the All-Big 12 First or Second Teams in singles and doubles. Saia also won the conference’s Coach of the Year award, an honor for which he was selected by his fellow coaches in the Big 12.

Sophomore Anna Supapitch Kuearum will be playing in her first postseason as a Cyclone. Kuearum did not play in the team’s opening-round loss to South Carolina last year when it fell 4-0 to the Gamecocks.

This season, Kuearum has supplied key wins for the Cyclones throughout the dual campaign. Partnering up with senior Thasaporn Naklo in doubles, the duo went 9-0 to start the season and finished the regular season at 10-8. In singles, she went 19-12 across the spring and fall seasons, recording two wins over ranked opponents and clinching three matches for her team in dual play at the No. 4 spot.

Kuearum spoke of the close bond that she and her teammates have had this year, citing it as a major factor in their success on the court.

“I feel like this year, we’ve really believed in each other,” Kuearum said. “I think we got to know each other more after we did leadership sessions together. During that time, we shared a lot about our lives, and I think that made us get closer.”

Naklo also earned an at-large bid in the individual singles bracket for the second year in a row. Naklo will leave Iowa State as one of its most decorated players, finishing in the top-five all-time in overall and singles wins. In the fall season, Naklo earned her 100th career victory and currently sits on a total of 142 entering her final postseason. She is currently ranked 66th in the nation in singles.

Naklo’s qualification last season to the NCAA Tournament marked the first time that an Iowa State player had qualified for the individual singles bracket. In the first round, she upset Virginia’s Elaine Chervinsky 6-4, 6-2 and moved into the second round to take on Abigail Rencheli of North Carolina State.

Heartbreak struck for Naklo in that match against Rencheli, as she suffered cramps while serving for the match. Up a set and 5-4 in the second frame, Naklo stood on the verge of taking down another ranked opponent when she had match point at 40-0. Unable to move, her play suffered, as Rencheli took the second set 7-5 and then won the match at 6-0 in the decider.

Outside of Naklo, the Cyclones have a strong lineup up and down the board, as all six of their singles players have clinched at least one match this year. Sophomore Ange Oby Kajuru and junior Miska Kadleckova have each won at least 20 matches in both singles and doubles and were named the No. 2 and 3 Position Big 12 singles champions respectively.

Kajuru is enjoying one of the best sophomore campaigns in Iowa State history, as her strong play in both singles and doubles has seen her stock climb up the national rankings. Pairing up with freshman newcomer Xinyi Nong, the pair dropped a single match in Big 12 play and finished as the conference’s No. 2 position champions and All-Big 12 First Team doubles honors. They are currently ranked No. 57 in the nation.

In singles, Kajuru is ranked right behind Naklo at 67th in the national polls and was named the Big 12’s individual champion at the No. 2 spot. Kajuru went 23-6 in the regular season, including a stretch that saw her win ten straight matches, and has recorded nine victories over nationally-ranked opponents. Kajuru was also named to the All-Conference First Team in singles, marking the second year in a row in which she was voted in.

Kadleckova has provided a 1-2 punch alongside Kajuru throughout the season and is currently on a record-breaking season of her own. The Cyclones have gone 15-1 and 9-1 when winning at the No. 2 and 3 singles spots, respectively. Kadleckova is currently 27-9 in singles and owns the school record for single-season doubles wins at 28.

The junior has been at her best when the pressure is on, as she owns a 6-1 record in matches that have gone to three sets this year. At the ITA Indoor National Championships, Kadleckova closed out Iowa State’s upset over Texas by beating the Longhorns’ Malaika Rapolu 6-3, 6-3 to record a 4-1 team win.

Kadleckova was named to the All-Conference Second Team in both singles and doubles and, like Kajuru, was named individual conference champions in both categories.

Kadleckova won the No. 3 Singles Championship after finishing with a 4-3 conference record and was also named the No. 3 doubles champion alongside partner Sofia Cabezas. The pair went 6-2 in Big 12 play, catching fire down the stretch by winning three out of four of their last matches.

Cabezas and senior Chie Kezuka add more depth to the bottom half of the Cyclones’ lineup, as both have postseason experience. Cabezas was named the Big 12 No. 5 singles position champion after going 5-1 against conference opponents and has combined with Kadleckova to go 13-4 in doubles play. The pair became the first Cyclone doubles players to qualify for the NCAA Championships last year, where they reached the second round.

Kezuka, like Naklo, is on her last ride as a collegiate tennis player. While she has spent most of the season at the No. 6 spot, she is currently one win ahead of Naklo on the all-time singles wins leaderboard at 75.

At the ITA Indoor Championships, Kezuka came through in the clutch as Iowa State was looking to record a then-largest-ever upset over Vanderbilt. As the only match left on court, Kezuka fought through a tight tiebreaker against Amy Stevens and was eventually able to come out on the other side as the victor with a 7-3 win.

Kezuka also broke the school’s career Big 12 wins record with 16 total victories over her four years. She has focused primarily on singles this year and finished the regular season with a 17-12 record overall and a 4-3 mark in conference action.

Kuearum talked about the team’s growth from this time last year based on the All-Conference team selections.

“I think before this year, only one of us was in the Big 12 Team, and I think this year we did a lot better,” Kuearum said. “I’m just really happy for them and happy for me.”

Saia spoke of the versatility that his team has possessed all year long, as his team has won from almost every spot.

“It’s a true team concept,” Saia said. “I think we have just eight, really quality tennis players. We might not have the No. 1-ranked doubles team or singles player, but there is just so much trust in each other that anybody can win at their spot in singles or doubles. It kind of factors into that belief, but all-in-all, I just love that we are a true team and we don’t just rely on one person. It’s everybody that makes us a great team.”

Drake enters this year’s NCAA Tournament as the reigning Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) Champions. The Bulldogs finished the regular season with a 16-7 record and beat Illinois State in the conference tournament final April 23. The teams went 7-1 in the MVC, with this season marking the second time in three years that it has qualified for postseason play.

Led by first-year head coach and former Texas player Breaunna Addison, the Bulldogs haven’t lost since March 26, a stretch that has seen them rattle off eight consecutive wins. Junior Ines Stephani won the MVC Player of the Year award and has gone 19-13 across all competitions this year.

The Cyclones and Bulldogs have each won 30 matches in the all-time season series. Iowa State has dominated the recent history of this matchup, however, not having lost to their in-state opponents since March 2015, in a period that has seen the scoreline read 7-0 in favor of the Cyclones.

The pair of schools met up in both of each other’s first matches of the year back in January in Des Moines. Iowa State swept its opponents on that occasion 7-0, recording the first of an eventual seven sweeps this year.

Kuearum talked about the familiarity that Friday’s match poses, as having seen the Bulldogs on the court before helps with some of the pre-match nerves.

“I think that we won’t get stressed that much because we have beaten them before,” Kuearum said, “but I think we will [try] to focus and give 100%.”

Come Friday, Saia’s message to his team will be one of taking the most of the opportunity, something that he echoed in his pre-match statement.

“Let’s go play another match in Ames,” Saia said. “We’re just going to play a tennis match, compete our tails off and play for each other. I know that it’s an in-state rivalry, but I think we’re just going to keep it simple and have that same approach.”

LSU and Wisconsin will kick off the first round at 11 a.m. Friday, with the Iowa State-Drake matchup set to follow at approximately 2 p.m. Both matches will be played at the Ames High School Tennis Courts, and in the case of poor weather conditions, matches will be moved indoors to Life Time Fitness in Urbandale.