Cyclone tennis looks to its core to replace senior leadership


Kennedy DeRaedt/Iowa State Daily

Senior Samantha Budai played for Iowa State Tennis on April 23. They fell 0-4 against Oklahoma. This was the final home match for Budai. She earned the first-ever national ranking by a Cyclone tennis player. 

Andrew Smith

The Iowa State tennis team jumped out to its best start in school history in 2017, winning 12 straight matches on its way to a 15-8 record.

Iowa State hasn’t had more than 15 wins since the 1984-85 season, when it went 24-15 and finished in sixth place in the Big Eight Conference.

With the rest of the Big 12 boasting great lineups and many top-100 players, the Cyclones will only graduate two seniors and may have a promising 2018 campaign ahead. 

The question isn’t whether coach Armando Espinosa is going to rebuild, but it’s who is going to fill the void when all-time great Samantha Budai graduates at the end of the season.

“That’s going to be important after losing Budai,” Espinosa said. “Hopefully the kids have learned from Sami on what it takes to help lead the team. I think it’s going to take a special kid to come out and replace Sami.

The Cyclones will collectively fill that void. They will bring one freshman from Russia, and the rest of the roster will be stacked with four juniors and two sophomores.

“I think our team is so close in classes we don’t have many freshman and seniors,” sophomore Erin Freeman said. “We all work together for that leadership.”

There is no telling if the Cyclones will be as good or better than the current squad, but with the young core of players building confidence and another highly touted freshman who Espinosa believes could contend for the top spot, the possibility for a similar 2017-18 campaign is more likely than not.

The key is finding a new leader on and off the court. The sophomores don’t feel any pressure to step up and assume the leader role.

“We’re still a young team but we have some players who next year will be here for three years,” Freeman said. “Sami has been a great player. [She] and Natalie are our only seniors, so we have four juniors coming up. … I think we’re in a good spot.”

Players like Budai don’t come around all the time. It’s not every year a team signs a player who etches her name in the program’s leaderboards. 

Even Natalie Phippen, a player who hasn’t been in the lineup nearly as much as Budai has, can attest to what it takes to step up and be a leader. After her track and field career didn’t work out, she was offered a spot on the tennis team and ran with it and always kept a positive attitude.

“I think it important to just stay positive and be an influence on your teammates,” Freeman said. “I think having Sami and Natalie there just helps, a lot of people look to them and a lot can be learned through their actions.”

Iowa State faces a unique problem in finding a new leader, but if the players manage to stick together and grow, learn and continue to be positive influences on one another, the team shouldn’t have a problem going forward.

“The mentality we have is anyone can be a leader,” Espinosa said. “Whether you’re not very vocal and your more hands-on or you’re a little bit more vocal, every player has the same opportunity to rise and lead.”

Iowa State said goodbye to its seniors during a senior day celebration Sunday. But the happy send-off was thwarted by Oklahoma State.

The Cowgirls came into Ames with one of the most loaded lineups in all of the Big 12. The Cyclones (15-10, 1-8 Big 12) couldn’t keep up, as they lost 4-0. Iowa State also fell to Oklahoma on Friday, 4-0. 

Phippen and Budai were both honored before the match, and each attempted to seal their career with a win.

The Cowgirls came out fast, winning two out of the three doubles 6-1 and 6-0, as the No. 1 spot did not finish at 5-1.

The Cyclones needed to regroup quickly. But Iowa State couldn’t get it done.

Oklahoma State took the first two spots in singles by a final of 6-0, 6-0 and 6-1,6-0. The Cowgirls officially won when Liera Bender dropped her match at No.6 singles 6-0, 6-0.

The Cowgirls officially claimed their second straight Big 12 regular season championship and their fifth straight sweep. 

The Cyclones still have business to tend to when they ship off to the Big 12 championships Thursday.

“Next year we will have four of us [juniors],” Bonadonna said. “It’s going to be a good adventure.”