This weekend, in front of a home Whitworth University audience, marks the end of the illustrious women’s tennis careers of a player at first too intimidated to stick with the team as a freshman, and another who perseveres despite personal heartache.
Given a second chance, Rachel Burns is in her fourth season as the Pirates’ No. 1 singles player. No. 4 singles player Katie Staudinger, whose brother lost a battle with cancer this year, has soldiered on at his behest.
The two four-year starters have been part of a special run for Whitworth women’s tennis. Associate athletic director and women’s coach Jo Wagstaff’s Pirates, 16-2 overall and 12-0 in the NWC, are seeking their third straight Northwest Conference tournament title and berth in the NCAA Division III championships.
For the first time in a dozen years the conference tennis championships will be played on a college campus, hosted by Whitworth today and Sunday. The Pirates play fourth-seeded Willamette in one semifinal at 10 a.m. in the Scotford Tennis Center.
The second semifinal follows at 2 p.m. between No. 2 Linfield and No. 3 Whitman, featuring Lewis and Clark graduate Elise Otto.
Winners play at 10 a.m. Sunday for the conference’s automatic berth to nationals.
“We were unbelievably loaded two years ago,” Wagstaff said. “Last year we graduated one and got another good one in. This year we lost another key player and were not even predicted to win league. This season means more than the other two, just because people waiting in the wings got to play.”
Burns and Staudinger made impacts right away, although Burns waited a year. Coming from Mark Morris High originally for soccer, she didn’t play, shying away following a workout. A four-year state qualifier in high school, she tried out for tennis.
“I hit with the team and got intimidated – it was pretty much the same thing with soccer – and ended up not coming out for the team,” Burns said.
However, her instructor of a PE tennis class noticed her talent and steered her back to the team. As the No. 1 singles player, plus playing on doubles, she’s won 113 matches. Pursuing her master’s degree in counseling, Burns is a four-time All-NWC player, last year’s conference Sportswoman of the Year and this year’s NWC tennis player of the year.
“Honestly, all I can say is every day we get to play against most of the best players in the conference, practicing with our own teammates,” Burns said. “The reason we are so good is because we are so deep.”
Staudinger will end her career with the most wins in school history, according to assistant coach Colin Storm.
“Her all-time record just in regular-season play (not including tournaments) is 148-18 in both singles and doubles,” he wrote in an email.
Struggling with the ordeal of her brother’s illness, it was iffy that Staudinger, a Richland product, would play this year, Wagstaff said.
“It was such a tough year for her,” she said. “But they insisted she was going to school, and she stuck out the tennis part. Every day’s a battle, but she said it’s what kept her going.”
The duo leads what is – as Burns pointed out – a talented and deep roster that features, besides the two seniors, six juniors and a sophomore.
“Their freshman year is when we started winning conference,” said Wagstaff, in her 28th year as Whitworth head coach. Her husband, Bill, is the longtime boys coach at Mead. “This is the first real run I’ve ever experienced. It is special, because it’s so late in my coaching career. I’m old enough to know you have to enjoy and cherish each moment. Times like this don’t come along for every college coach.”
And players like Burns and Staudinger don’t always come along, either.
“It definitely didn’t turn out as expected if you go back to Day One,” Burns said. “But, man, it turned out to be great.”
Pirates Alli Marshall and Erica Bosman made the all-NWC team, the conference announced Friday. Staudinger was named honorable mention.
Whitworth’s Daniel Redfern (first team) and Colin Zalewski (second team) were honored on the men’s team.