“Just In Time For Kick-Off!”
By Dunja Antunovic, DePaul Graduate Assistant Coach
2010 ITA/USTWA Writing Contest Winner
When you are a player on one of those teams that is ranked, but not quite high enough to get into the NCAA Championships, you are wishing for an event such as the Kick-Off Weekend.
When I came to DePaul, we were not ranked. By the end of my junior year, we managed to secure a solid spot in the Top 75. That season, we didn’t come close enough to the NCAAs, but I had something to look forward to in my senior year. The ITA decided to launch a new system for the ITA National Team Indoor Championships.
Prior to 2009, 15 teams earned a bid to the Championships based on the team rankings from the year before, while the 16th spot was taken by hosting the Championships.
Now, the host team still has an automatic place in the tournament, but in the past couple of years, 60 teams have the opportunity to compete at 15 sites during the Kick-Off Weekend. The winner from each site advances to the Championships.
The draft for the Kick-Off Weekend occurs at the finale of the previous season and, unlike the NCAA draft, in this system the coaches get to pick where they want their teams to go. DePaul head coach, Mark Ardizzone very much enjoys this process.
“The draft is a very fun time,” Ardizzone said. “You have to guess where your team and where other teams are going to be next year, what the best option is financially and whether you want to be indoors or outdoors. There are so many factors that make the draft exciting.”
I remember the 2008 draft. Between my two classes, I ran to the closest computer in our cafeteria to catch a glimpse of the draft and see what options were left for us. I don’t recall ever hitting the refresh button that many times.
Since 2009, we have been among the 60 teams that qualified and for us, that last weekend of January was of utmost importance.
“The biggest thing the Kick-Off Weekend offers is opportunity,” Ardizzone said. “The lower ranked teams have an opportunity to see some higher ranked teams. You also have the opportunity to see teams in your peer group that you otherwise wouldn’t see and go to places that you otherwise wouldn’t go.”
By creating the Kick-Off Weekend, the ITA did something that rarely happens in other sports. Namely, the best teams in the country are put on the line at the very beginning of the season.
“Knowing how quickly it’s coming, it gives your team something to be excited abut over the winter break,” Ardizzone said.
For my senior self, who goes to a school that has a 5-week-long winter break, the awareness of having of such a competitive weekend early in the season added an extra boost of motivation to work hard in December and come back ready to play. That year, Mark picked UCLA as our site. The thought of Los Angeles did not our team’s spirits either.
“The Kick-Off Weekend is always held at a great site, and for a player, it’s great to play at nice courts and nice facilities,” Katarina Milinkovic, currently a senior on the DePaul team, said. “Also, we get to see beautiful places and cities. The year we played at UCLA was an amazing experience!”
From a developmental standpoint, this weekend is of particular value for the individual players and the team as a whole to measure up against the highest level of competition in Division I college tennis.
“We get the chance to play against good ranked teams – not just one team, but two,” Selma Salkovic, senior and captain of the DePaul team, said. “One of the greatest benefits is to see how good we are and how hard we are supposed to work in order to be better than those teams.”
The DePaul players see one more rewarding aspect of the weekend.
“As far as friendship and bonding, I think Kick-Off Weekends are great because there are four teams with plenty of players, all at the same facility,” Milinkovic said. “It’s nice to meet some new friends, and also meeting with old ones can be wonderful.”
This year, we are traveling to Chapel Hill, NC to square off against No. 6 North Carolina. Our coaching staff and our players are looking forward to all that the weekend has to offer.
Follow the action January 28-30th at the ITA website!