BY ROCKY STANLEY
THE DAILY INDEPENDENT
Aided by a huge lift from sophomore Kierstin Hensley, West Virginia State’s women’s tennis team has ascended to new heights.
Flying high after their first regional championship last weekend, the Yellow Jackets will take to the skies Sunday for a cross-country flight.
WVSU coach John Simms refers to the 16team Division II National Tournament, which opens Tuesday in Surprise, Arizona, as the equivalent of basketball’s Final Four.
It’s also one of the goals Simms set when he took over the program 15 years ago. West Virginia State reached the regional championship match the past five years, but couldn’t get over the top.
Until Sunday, when the Yellow Jackets rallied past Mercyhurst 5-4 for the Atlantic Region 2 title at Coonskin Park in Charleston.
A No. 2 seed enabled WVSU to host one of the region’s two tournaments for the first time.
“We finally put together a good enough season to have it here,” Simms said. “To break through to that next level, it’s very exciting.”
And a bit unexpected, Simms added, because the team’s eight-player roster includes only one senior compared to four freshmen.
“If you told me we would do this, I would say it was a year too early,” Simms said. “But the experienced players like Kierstin were able to carry the younger ones this far.”
Hensley is a former Russell High School star and two-time state doubles champion. She went 4-0 in singles and doubles play as WVSU blanked Shaw University from North Carolina 5-0 and then defeated Mercyhurst (Erie, Pennsylvania).
The title match came down to the final court. Senior Nina Dillwald, who is Hensley’s doubles partner, trailed 3-1 in the third set and was treated for back soreness, but she returned to the court and did not drop another game.
“It’s crazy,” Hensley said Wednesday afternoon while taking a study break. “It’s kind of like we are in shock. I remember when we won the (Mountain East) conference (last fall). Everybody was crying. When Nina won that match, it was just like ‘Oh my gosh, we’re going to Arizona.’” Hensley isn’t crazy about flying, but she looks forward to the destination.
“I’ve never been out west,” she said. “From what I’ve heard, the NCAA treats us very well there and will have a buffet dinner for all the players. There will be live stream of the matches, so people can watch back home. I’m thankful for having so much support from family and friends last week.”
Hensley beat Kayla Frost 6-3, 6-0 in No. 2 singles and teamed with Dillwald of Germany to take the No. 1 doubles final 8-3.
“Kierstin’s just really come on,” Simms said. “Same as last year, her and Laura Isbey (New Zealand) go back and forth at No. 1 singles. I really believe Kierstin is one of the best doubles players in the country.”
Hensley and Dillwald have been ranked as high as No. 10 this season.
“Kierstin, with that great doubles background, can go out on the court and get two points for you,” Simms said. “Most singles players at this level are trying to learn doubles.”
Hensley thrives on the team tennis aspect.
“Kind of knowing you helped your team get to this point and cheering them on, it’s the best feeling ever,” she said.
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