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IVCC sophomore Delaney Ridley returns the ball during the Lady Eagles’ home finale Friday at Hegeler Park in La Salle. The La Salle-Peru graduate plays No. 1 singles and No. 2 doubles. NewsTribune photo/Anthony Soufflé
IVCC freshman April Kutz hits the ball during the Lady Eagles’ home finale Friday at Hegeler Park in La Salle. The La Salle-Peru graduate plays No. 2 singles and No. 2 doubles for the Lady Eagles, who play in the Region IV tournament this weekend. NewsTribune photo/Anthony Soufflé
The Illinois Valley Community College sophomore and La Salle-Peru Township High School graduate was facing the unthinkable this spring — a sophomore season without tennis — as the IVCC board debated dissolving the Lady Eagles tennis program due to budget constraints.
“I chose to go to IVCC so I could play tennis and continue playing. I was really worried I wasn’t going to be able to do something I loved anymore,” Ridley said. Julie Milota also was worried.
The 1993 IVCC alumna didn’t want the girls on the team to miss out on the experiences and life lessons she learned competing for the Lady Eagles in a college career that included back-to-back trips to the NJCAA national tournament before continuing on scholarship at Southern Illinois University.
So Milota hatched a plan.
“I just mentioned that if (IVCC) was still going to have (already issued) tuition waivers for the girls, why couldn’t they play if they have a volunteer coach?” Milota said. “I guess they really hadn’t looked at it that way. They probably figured that nobody would want to volunteer to coach.
“I just felt a passion for keeping IVCC tennis. I’m an alumna there and I did play tennis for Dean Riley. I learned a lot when I was playing tennis and I feel like it helped me with a lot of other things down the road through my life. So I felt very passionately that these kids should have a program.”
So Milota, a United States Tennis Association pro who works as a dental hygienist by day, was given the reins of the team, which helps finance itself through fundraisers.
But the program has done more than simply continue under her watch.
It has flourished as the Lady Eagles finished 6-3 during regular-season region play this fall and added a scrimmage win against Aurora University.
And now, with the Region IV tournament taking off Friday in Dixon, the Lady Eagles hope to continue their winning ways — and earn a trip back to nationals.
“It’s definitely been amazing. Compared to last season, this year was definitely a lot different, especially with how much we’ve all improved as a team,” Ridley said. “I’m just really glad we had the opportunity to have it this year.”
Ridley, who plays No. 1 singles and also competes in No. 2 doubles for the Lady Eagles, said it is tough to find words to describe how much Milota has meant to her and her teammates.
“It means the world to all of us. She’s pretty much like an angel that came to us,” Ridley said. “For a while there, we kind of felt like nobody really cared about the program. Her stepping up was just really encouraging, and she’s really pushed us to be better players.”
Ridley said the Lady Eagles’ success this fall could help be a determining factor in the future of the program, and that it was important for her to see the IVCC tennis team continue.
“It’s important to me because I work for the park and see all these kids that love playing tennis and they want to keep going. I just want to know that IVCC will have a program for those kids when they grow up — it would make me feel a lot better,” Ridley said.
But while the future of the program is uncertain, the Lady Eagles, whose roster also includes sophomores Emma Nettleingham and Nicole Kulis as well as freshmen April Kutz, Karly Rosencrans, and Emily Santman, will have this season’s destiny in their hands as they compete in Dixon this weekend for a bid to the national tournament.
“When we started (this season) we knew we were going to have a really strong team, but I don’t think we really thought we were going to be this strong. I think we’re in a really good position to show the school how hard we’ve worked at regionals this weekend,” Ridley said. “Our main goal, of course, is to make it nationals, but we all want to win at least one or two matches and make it on to play Saturday.
“Going into the IVCC program I never imagined that I actually could go to nationals. To make it there would probably be the highlight of my tennis career by far because I never even knew that was a goal I could possibly reach. And now, I definitely feel like we are capable of going to nationals.”
It’s been a whirlwind of emotions for Ridley and the Lady Eagles as they went from near extinction to a chance at a truly special season.
“It’s really hard to sum it all up. There’s just been so much hard work that we’ve put into it,” Ridley said. “It’s just a really great feeling knowing that we are showing people who didn’t think we had the skill or a chance — and we’re showing them we do have the skill. It’s just a really fulfilling emotion right now.”
Chris Yucus can be reached at 220-6995, or at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @NT_SportsChris.
Posted: Thursday, October 4, 2012
Article comment by:
I certainly hope that "someone in authority" recognizes the superb effort and dedication this young lady (Julie Milota) has and still is putting into saving this program from near extinction. She deserves some serious recognition for her work.
Since this application WILL NOT let me change my alias from "Anonymous81055" to my real name, I will sign this...NORM CLARK
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