By Sally Adams
Big 12 Campus Correspondent
All athletic programs notice changes when a graduating group of seniors bids adieu to their teams. Iowa State tennis is no different, as the squad will graduate three players who have been with the program for four years. Erin Karonis, Reka Kelemen, and Liza Wischer are about to finish out their stints as Cyclone student-athletes. Their unique contributions to the Cyclone tennis program over the past four years have been significant.
Four years ago, Iowa State tennis underwent a major change in the coaching department. Armando Espinosa became the team's associate head coach in July of 2007, and took over later that season as interim head coach when Michele Conlon left to pursue other opportunities. Karonis, Kelemen and Wischer in their freshman campaign responded well to Espinosa's fresh perspective.
"When they were new to the program I was new to the head coaching job, so they were very patient with a lot of things," Espinosa said. "We were trying different things and changing things around and they just embraced the change."
Under Espinosa's guidance, the program began to shift in a new direction, and Karonis, Kelemen and Wischer noticed straightaway that this change was for the better. Specialized team workouts and the incorporation of more specific drills made the Cyclones work hard to improve, and the squad's efforts were not in vain. The 2008-09 season brought Iowa State its first Big 12 conference win since 2002.
"When Mando became head coach, since the practicing and conditioning were different, we came together as a team and got that Big 12 win," Wischer said, referring to the Cyclones' 4-3 victory over Kansas State.
Karonis also reflected on the transitions she has seen in her four years at Iowa State.
"Huge changes have happened," she said. "My freshman year I came in, and it's nowhere close to what it used to be - it's so much better now. We weren't a joke, but it was almost like nobody took us seriously in the Big 12. Each year programs take us more seriously because they see how much better we've gotten."
Karonis holds two Iowa State records. She gained seven regular-season conference wins during the 2008-09 season and has chalked up 15 career Big 12 wins. In 2009-10, Wischer posted six conference regular-season singles wins.
Not only have these seniors contributed to the team's turnaround in the record books, but they have maintained their responsibilities as student-athletes exceptionally well. Each of the seniors has been awarded Academic All-Big 12 recognition, and all three have been named to the Big 12 Commissioner's Honor Roll on multiple occasions. They believe that performing well in the classroom is just as important as performing well on the tennis court.
Kelemen explained that their academic successes are largely due to a team effort and mindset.
"Time management with schoolwork and tennis is really important," Kelemen said. "We're used to being in school until 2 p.m. or so and then practice and workouts until 6 p.m. Then we go home and do homework all night. We don't complain and we get our work done because the others on the team are doing it, too."
After four years of significant program growth, the seniors are gearing up for the next steps in their lives, leaving behind a momentous impact on Iowa State's program. Even after their graduation, the student-athletes are hoping that Cyclone tennis will continue down its progressive path.
"I hope that next year we can clinch some of those close 4-3 or 5-2 matches," Wischer said. "Now that the team is really close and confident, they'll do it. It's all a stepping stone; I think maybe next year when they come upon those situations it will be reversed and we'll get the win. That'll boost the team's confidence and get us thinking, 'Okay, we're here, and we can do this.'"
Espinosa reflected on the trio's impact and contributions over the years, and noted that losing the three seniors will be poignant.
"It's going to be sad to see them go, but it's just one of those things that you can only have them for four years," he said. "But it's been four good years."