By Molly Hulsey
Big 12 Campus Correspondent
Kaitlyn Ritchie knew her senior leadership would be important to the Missouri tennis squad.
Ten days before her final season began, she discovered just how important, as long-time coach Blake Starkey resigned from his position and the team began the 2011 campaign searching for an identity under interim head coach Steven Stuckenschneider.
"Our coach leaving so suddenly before the season began really made the team bond together on an even deeper level," Ritchie said. "As a senior, I have really had the opportunity to be a leader on the team."
An Oklahoma native, Ritchie fell in love with Mizzou's campus, community, and facilities on her first visit as a high school senior. In her first three years of competition, she notched conference victories over Nebraska and Iowa State. Entering her senior season, it was important to Ritchie to improve on an individual basis and support her teammates, especially as the team found itself under new leadership.
The beginning of the season was a struggle. Although competitive, Ritchie dropped her first five league singles matches.
"In the early part of the spring, I simply put too much pressure on myself to win and didn't give myself the freedom to enjoy playing and competing at the level I knew that I was capable of and letting winning the matches take care of itself," Ritchie said.
As the season progressed, Ritchie found her stroke, and replaced her early-season losing streak with an even longer winning one. Including the conference championship, she finished the season red-hot, winning her last seven match-ups.
"I think what really clicked for me was just focusing on reaching the level of play where I was confident in every match, no matter who I was playing," Ritchie said. "Once I really focused on that mindset, winning the matches became easier."
Although Ritchie won her individual matchups in the conference championship, the team as a whole fell to Oklahoma State, a difficult finish for an otherwise stellar season.
"Losing to OSU at the tournament was a rollercoaster," Ritchie said. "Having beat them in the regular season, and then having such a hard-fought and long final match, it was really tough. As a team, though, we fought hard, and it was a good college tennis match."
For Ritchie, the realization that it was her last college tournament didn't hit until after the fact.
"It didn't really sink in that it was my last match," Ritchie said. "Now, after the fact, it means a great deal that I finished my senior season, including the tournament, at such a strong level."
The lessons Ritchie has learned in her four years at Mizzou are ones she cherishes, as she plans to earn a Communications degree after studying abroad next school year.
"I have loved playing for Mizzou. Being able to challenge myself and develop my athleticism and tennis career taught me how to attain goals through hard work. I've learned lessons in how to carry yourself and deal with adversity that will be a part of not only sports, but life for me as well."