Photo: Connor McCourtney
It may have taken five years, but the Drake women’s tennis team has once again posted a winning record this season. In 2006, the Bulldogs went 13-10. After splitting a pair of matches last weekend, Drake has now claimed 13 wins in 2011.
“I always felt this team could be better,” junior Jessica Aguilera said.
Aguilera has a point. On paper, the women’s squad always looked to be an above-average team. The program attracted strong recruits, but something was always missing. After this season, one could make the convincing argument that the missing puzzle piece to the Bulldogs’ resurgence was first-year head coach Paul Thomson.
Before coming to Drake, Thomson was the head women’s tennis coach at Brevard College in Brevard, N.C. During his five years there, he helped the team transition from the NAIA level to NCAA Division II. During his last season, he led the Tornadoes to a 14-6 record. Thomson was brought in to do for Drake what he did for Brevard, and so far he has done just that. The Bulldogs won only two games the entire conference season in 2010, but this year the team won four of secen MVC matches.
“I do think that coach Thomson has had a lot to do with our improvement this year,” junior Gabby Demos said. “His vivacious spirit coming into this program was something we needed to kick it into a new gear. He inspires us every day and has made me personally want to reach levels I didn’t even think possible.”
Last year, Drake had the talent to post a winning record, yet it failed to materialize. Therefore, it was Thomson who took the initiative — not to just improve his players’ quality of play, but to change their mindsets going into the season.
“At the beginning of this season, the team seemed determined to get better and to win,” Aguilera said.
Aguilera noted how the dynamic in the locker room and on the court has changed for the Bulldogs. Practices this season are harder and more rigorous than before. Wins are not something that the team hopes for, but something it fights for. As Thomson says, the players are done trying. They are doing.
Like head coach Evan Austin of the men’s squad, Thomson’s confidence in his team has been a major reason improvements are finally being made. Aguilera said that his belief has helped her believe in herself out on the court.
“He made us realize how good we could be,” she said.
The Bulldogs have come into their own now that the State Farm MVC Championship draws near. Last season, the Bulldogs lost to both Evansville and Southern Illinois late in the spring. Drake has beaten both of those teams in convincing fashion this season, due in part to its vastly improved doubles play. At the beginning of the season, Thomson struggled finding three teams that could consistently post victories. But, through a combination of patience and variety, the first-year coach has found three pairings that have produced positive results.
“Doubles (play) is a key focus for us every day at practice and I think all that focused effort has made the difference lately,” Demos said. “We’ve mixed up the teams a lot this season as well and I think the combinations we have right now are some of the best yet, which has also helped our recent success.”
Drake is hoping to capture the same intensity and momentum that propelled them to a 5-2 victory over Evansville throughout the entire MVC tournament. The tournament takes place Friday through Sunday in St. Louis. The Bulldogs will have to earn wins over teams like Northern Iowa and Southern Illinois, that have conquered Drake the last two years.
Though they’ve posted their first winning record in five years, the Bulldogs aren’t looking to settle.
“Some goals have been already met, like having a winning record,” Aguilera said. “Others, like the MVC tournament, are still in our minds and we are looking forward to that weekend.”