DeLange Quietly Leads Cougars Back to Postseason
USF Sports Information
The secret to winning in team tennis really isn’t much of a secret.
You need a bunch of really good tennis players.
And yes, the same thing could be said about most team sports. The deeper the squad, the better the results, of course. But it's not the same.
In football, a hall of fame quarterback can take you a long way. In basketball, several nets have been cut down thanks to the efforts of a dominating center. In baseball, a manager can work his lineup to mask a glaring weakness. In just about every sport, the significance of a certain player's role can be molded and defined.
But in team tennis, what's happening on the No. 6 singles court is every bit as important as the No. 1 singles court.
"A point is a point," quipped Kevin Grebin, who is in his ninth year at the helm of the Sioux Falls women’s tennis program. "You need five of them to win."
The Cougars (8-9, 6-6 NSIC) are the No. 8 seed in this weekend’s Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference tournament, thereby becoming the first USF team to receive a non-automatic postseason berth in the school’s NCAA Division II era.
And it's been sophomore Morgan DeLange who has flown under the radar and been crucial to the Cougars' success.
The footprint of college tennis in the Great Plains has never been large. To make matters worse, the Cougars lack an on-campus tennis facility and practice when most folks are in bed (10 p.m. to midnight at Westward Ho Country Club). Next, throw in what appears to be an endless winter in Sioux Falls, which has decimated the Cougars’ outdoor season. You can count the number of times the team has practiced outdoors with two fingers, not hands.
Makes it pretty easy to go unnoticed in the local newspaper.
DeLange is penciled in at No. 6 in Grebin’s lineup and leads the Cougars with 10 singles victories. She is an impressive 9-2 against conference opponents and ended the regular season with nine NSIC wins in a row.
But DeLange won’t get a whiff of media attention or postseason recognition, as those in charge of such things pay about as much attention to No. 6 singles as they would a right fielder in Little League baseball.
DeLange doesn’t mind playing in relative anonymity.
“We may not get as much of the attention as the girls at the top of the lineup,” she said, “but we know -- and everybody on our team knows – that the lower courts are just as important.”
Confidence and Challenges
Coach Grebin recruited DeLange because of the confidence she displayed during a very successful career at Watertown High School.
“I kept tabs on Morgan and knew that she was a very skilled and consistent player,” he said. “But more important, she had a quiet confidence and it was obvious that she believes in what she can do on the tennis court.”
“That confidence Morgan carries is what sold me,” Grebin finished. “It’s part of the psychological make up of every successful tennis player.”
DeLange was a freshman during the USF’s 2011-12 NCAA provisional campaign. The season was a challenging one; filled with brutal travel, match cancelations and freak injuries (tennis ball in the eye, anyone?) that left Grebin with only six players on his roster.
The Cougars finished 1-10 overall while DeLange went a team-best 4-7 in No. 3 singles.
It was a learning experience for DeLange, whose high school hardware included a third flight state doubles crown and three Eastern South Dakota Conference team championships.
“Last year I learned was how important it is to stay positive and have fun playing tennis,” DeLange said. “The tennis girls are amazing, and I think we bonded a lot because of the struggles we faced last season.”
DeLange shored up her second serve during the summer, but her primary focus was agility and improved court coverage. Tennis players change direction as many as five times in 10 seconds during a typical point, and foot speed can often mean the difference between winning and losing a match.
Court Six: Chock Full of Bagels & Pushers
DeLange got off to a slow start this spring and her record slipped to 0-3 with a 6-4, 6-0 loss to Minnesota State’s Alexia Haakedahl on Feb. 9. Since then, she has rolled off nine straight NSIC wins and has surrendered a total of 24 games during the streak.
Speaking of baked goods. DeLange has also cooked up some starchy scorelines, serving up straight set bagels to opponents from Bemidji State, Upper Iowa and Minnesota Crookston.
“I'm a bit surprised about my record, I didn't know until I saw it in an article the other day,” DeLange admitted. “I always go into a match expecting to win, but after the match I usually forget about it. “
No. 6 singles is brimming with pushers—defensive players that push back shots without purposely hitting a winner. Pushers win matches by giving more offensive players fits and tiring them into making unforced errors.
And DeLange says its patience, not power or technique, that has helped her beat opponents that champion this “junkyard’ style of tennis.
“I’ve never had a big shot and the key to my game has always been patience,” she explained. “It’s certainly been tested, but if you get upset and let a pusher get in your head, they’ll help you lose the match.”
She added, “you just have to play smart and let them do their thing, and wait until you have a clear opportunity before you go for the winner.”
DeLange also plays No. 3 doubles with junior Julia Iversen. And the partnership with Iversen has been successful as well, yielding five wins (5-3 in NSIC matches).
In doubles play, chemistry is crucial, and it is clear that DeLange and Iversen have plenty of it.
“We know where we are at all times,” DeLange said. “She is one of my best friends off the court, so it really helps on the court.”
Coach Grebin’s recipe for a successful doubles tandem is equal parts bruising power and deft touch.
“It’s important to have one player that can hit with power and push the opponent back on their heels,” he said. “But the other player needs to have a soft touch, so they can put the point away with a slice or a drop shot.”
“Julia and Morgan are a prime example of that combination of power and touch,” he added.
The tandem had an uncharacteristically poor showing on Tuesday against Northern State, dropping the No. 3 match to Cayla Cordova and Mikela Kowatsch, 8-2.
Coach Grebin didn’t talk to DeLange before the start of singles play.
“I know Morgan well enough to know when to leave her alone, “ he said, sitting on the sidelines at Sioux Empire Fitness. “She will refocus after the loss and there’s no doubt in my mind that she’s going to win her next match.”
Coach knows best.
Rather than dwell on the lost lead, the frittered opportunity, DeLange took it out on Cordova, who was also her No. 6 opponent.
DeLange held serve with authority against Cordova and calmly switched sides after an inside out forehand for a winner. On the final point of the first set, she ended a long rally with an overhead smash that clearly got in her opponent’s head. DeLange cruised to the 6-1, 6-3 victory.
In Wednesday’s regular season finale against Minnesota-Duluth, DeLange’s contributions again sparked her team to victory. She and Iversen registered a commanding 8-4 win against the Bulldogs and DeLange was off the court quickly in singles, turning DeLaney Dobbs away 2 & 1 for her ninth straight NSIC victory.
DeLange has also been clutch down the stretch. She went 4-0 in singles and doubles in the Cougars’ nip-and-tuck 5-4 victories against Upper Iowa and Minnesota Crookston.
According to teammate Rachel Hussey, DeLange’s consistent contributions have been vital to the team’s overall success.
“Most teams in our conference have a very strong top half of their lineup but lack depth in the bottom half,” she said. “And when Morgan puts the point up, it takes some of the pressure off the rest of the team.”
“It makes everybody kind of relax and go for their shots a little bit more,” she added.
It's nice to know your teammates have your back.
And it's even nicer to know your teammates are really good up and down the lineup.
"This is exactly what you recruit for," Grebin said. "To be the deepest team on the court this time of year."
After all, that point at No. 6 could be the one that matters the most.