Three Big Takeaways: Cyclones break into Sweet 16, defeat Badgers 4-1


Tyler Coe

Thasaporn Naklo in a singles match against Drake in the NCAA Regionals on May 5, 2023.

The Iowa State tennis team continued its dream season Saturday afternoon, as the team beat No. 21 Wisconsin 4-1 to qualify for its first Sweet 16 appearance in program history.

Playing in front of their home fans for the fifth time this season, the No. 12 Cyclones started off strong and never looked back, quickly clinching the doubles point to establish the early lead. Iowa State seniors then came up big in singles play, with both Thasaporn Naklo and Chie Kezuka winning their matches to book their team’s ticket into the next round.

The win was an emotional one for the Cyclones, with head coach Boomer Saia at a loss of words afterward on how to describe the win.

“Maybe tomorrow, or Monday, or come June,” Saia said on when he’ll fully absorb the victory. “I’m going to enjoy this moment, and be really present, and celebrate with our team tonight. I’m just so proud. When you get a group of young women fighting together, there is just nothing cooler, and so [I’m] just a really, really proud coach here.”

The Cyclones extended their overall record to 19-5, and retained their perfect record at home, which now stands at 6-0. This season’s group is second on the school’s all-time record board for single-season wins, placing behind the 1984-85 team’s 23-16 mark.

Fast start in doubles

Doubles play saw the Cyclones attack Wisconsin at the net early, and often. Iowa State won matches on Courts 1 and 2 to clinch its 19th doubles point of the season.

At the No. 2 spot, sophomore Ange Oby Kajuru and freshman Xinyi Nong gave a near one-sided performance, defeating Ava Markham and Maria Sholokhova 6-1. The win was a source of redemption for the No. 77-ranked pair, as they had lost in the first round on Friday to Drake’s Ines Steaphani and Oriana Parks-Goodwin.

For the second day in a row, Iowa State locked up the doubles point at the No. 1 point, with Naklo and sophomore Anna Supapitch Kuearum dealing out a 6-2 win over the Badgers’ Xinyu Cai and Alina Mukhortova.

Naklo and Kuearum started off by winning the opening pair of games to establish an early, 2-0 lead. Mukhortova and Cai responded with two games of their own, and tied things up at 2-2 on a strong service game in the fourth game of the set.

Iowa State was able to break Wisconsin’s serve in the fifth game, with Naklo and Kuearum inching past Mukhortova and Cai once again.

The Cyclone pair poached and hit high lifts to keep their opponents on the run, ultimately getting the advantage to go ahead and never look back. Over the next four games, Naklo and Kuearum didn’t let Mukhortova and Cai get another chance to take the lead back, capping it off with a service game for the match. The win was the pair’s 15th of the season, with Iowa State marking another match where it had taken the doubles point.

“We were hungry to come out differently than we did yesterday, we really turned it on, “ Saia said of his team’s doubles performances. “I think that all three doubles teams showed up ready to play from the first point, that’s something [that] we preach. To put that into motion in the biggest of moments, [in] an NCAA Tournament [and] to make a Sweet 16, wow. [It’s] just really cool to see that take shape, and the coachability of our kids.”

The Cyclones are now 19-1 in matches where they have won the doubles point. Kajuru earned her 28th doubles win of the season, putting her right behind junior Miska Kadleckova on the program’s single-season doubles victories list.

Seniors book-end singles wins

Iowa State was just as dominant in singles as doubles, taking three-out-of-four matches to seal the dual match.

The singles points were started and ended by a pair of seniors, as Naklo and Kezuka both got wins in their respective matches to lead the Cyclones to victory. Playing at home for just the sixth time this season, both players won in straight sets to wrap up the dual for Iowa State.

Naklo was the first Cyclone player to finish her match, as she registered a 6-4, 6-2 win over 59th-ranked Ava Markham. The No. 60 Thai player led 4-2 in the opening set, but Markham was able to come back to tie things up at 4-4.

In the next game, Naklo produced a series of winners to jump back into the lead, 5-4. The senior closed out the opening frame on her serve to get on the board first.

The second set was all Naklo, as she built an early lead over Markham to give herself some breathing room, and eventually clinch her match. The win put Naklo at 75 career singles victories, good for second on the all-time list in Iowa State history.

The Badgers got their first point on Court No. 4, as Mukhortova used a 6-2 opening set over Kuearum to close out her match on a 6-2, 6-2 scoreline.

Iowa State quickly responded elsewhere, as Kadleckova wrapped her match at the No. 3 spot with a straight sets win over Taylor Cataldi. The opening set saw Kadleckova serve up a 6-0 “bagel” over her opponent, and she then battled her way through the early stages of the second to get a 3-2 lead. The next three games all resulted in Kadleckova’s favor, as she increased Iowa State’s lead to 3-1 in the team score.

Kadleckova earned her 29th singles win of the year against Markham, and now holds the school record for the most number of victories in a single-season. The Banska Bystrica, Slovakia, native also has 29 doubles wins this season, as she and partner Sofia Cabezas own a 15-4 record in dual matches.

That meant that the win would be decided on Courts 2, 5 or 6, with all three matches nearing the end. Saia commented on the decisions that he had to make in regard to which match he was more concentrated on.

“You kind of navigate the logistics of it, and who needs me when or vice versa for our associate head coach Kenna [Kilgo], or volunteer [coach] Colt [Tegtmeier],” Saia said. “We handle that all together. It can always be tricky with the logistics, but at the end of the day, our players have that belief in themselves. So whether we’re on or off their court, I trust them wholeheartedly.”

Kezuka’s match against Charmaine Seah had a different tone than her first round match against Drake’s Rebecca Ehn. When play was stopped on Friday, she was a set a 1-0 down to Ehn, and came into Saturday’s matchup having not finished three out of her last five matches.

Kezuka rolled to a 6-1 advantage in the first set, not allowing Seah to establish a run of her own in the process. The second set saw Kezuka get ahead early again, as she raced out to a 3-0 lead. Seah battled through the next few games to get level with her opponent, but Kezuka produced another surge to shift the momentum back in her favor.

The score eventually stood at 5-3, with Kezuka serving for the match and to book a place in Iowa State tennis history. The senior got the score to 40-0, and on the final point, produced a series of attacking shots to put her opponent away and send Iowa State into the Super Regionals.

Kezuka was mobbed by her teammates in celebration, followed by a round of hugs from Saia and the rest of the coaching staff. The Cyclones’ head coach spoke of the symbolism of a senior clinching the match for his team.

“To watch Kezuka, it’s almost fitting, she has almost 20, 25 clinches in her whole career,” Saia said. “For her to seal it [in] her senior year, just incredible. I’ll probably be moved to tears if I don’t get off here quickly.”

Entering new territory

In winning the match, Iowa State recorded its second win in two years over Wisconsin, defeating the then-No. 42 Badgers at home in 2022.

In what has been their best season in program history, the Cyclones have now entered uncharted territory, as their past two trips to the NCAA Tournament ended in the first and second rounds.

Prior to Saia’s arrival in Ames, Iowa State had never cracked a 0.500 record in conference play, let alone qualify for the postseason. This year, the Cyclones finished with a 7-2 showing in the Big 12, earning the No. 3 seed in the conference tournament, and rising to as high as No. 4 in the nation earlier this year.

For Saia, the arrival to this moment was more than just Saturday’s win, but rather from his first season onwards.

“The journey is always greater than the destination, even though it’s pretty sweet making a Sweet 16,” Saia said. “From where we came from five years ago, [with] players investing, believing and just working hard all together. If your vision is stronger than your limitations, anything is possible. I’m just so proud that our kids chose to believe and fight this whole season, and that’s when special things happen.”

Naklo, Kezuka and Christin Hsieh have all been part of the Cyclones’ gradual climb over the last three years. The trio were there when the Cyclones first qualified for the NCAA Tournament, where they beat South Carolina in the first round and then fell to No. 6 seed North Carolina State.

In 2022, the Cyclones started off the season with an 11-0 record, but the Gamecocks got their revenge in the NCAA Tournament by sweeping them, 4-0.

Fast forward to this year, where the Cyclones clinched a spot in the postseason for the third year in a row thanks to starting off the year with a run of upsets. In reaching the semifinals of the ITA Indoor Championships in February, Iowa State beat UCLA, Miami, Vanderbilt and No. 1 Texas all for the first time in school history.

The Cyclones have earned a majority of their success this year on the road, as their first match at home was in March against Kansas. In those six matches, they were also truly in Ames for two of them, as poor weather conditions as those on Friday against Drake forced the remainder of the matches to be completed in nearby Urbandale.

Saia discussed the value that the fans at the Ames High School tennis complex had on his team’s performance.

“There’s nothing like playing in Ames,” Saia said. “To see the hundreds that were here and supporting and the roars [from the crowd], they deserve that. Like I said, Cyclone nation comes out and supports, and this was no different. It’s just a really neat moment to not just share this [win] with our team, but [also] with our fans. I’m just so appreciative that we had that opportunity in Ames, and took advantage of it.”

The Cyclones’ next opponent in the Super Regional will be Friday against UCLA at 1 p.m. at Ames High School.