The Bucs' tennis team has been underdogs in almost every match they've entered this season, simply because of their inexperience.
Kelly is one of seven sophomores on the Bucs' squad, who, at this time a week ago, hadn't experienced a win in the O-K Red Conference.
Maybe the “Baby Bucs” are starting to grow up.
Grand Haven routed Jenison last Thursday and turned in an even more impressive performance on Wednesday at Grand Haven High School, tying a talented Grandville squad, 4-4. Following Wednesday's result, Grand Haven stands at 2-3-1 overall and 1-2-1 in conference dual meets.
“We're going to try (to pull some upsets) at the conference tournament,” Kelly said, who scored a 6-1, 2-6, 6-0 victory over Grandville's Elise Wise at No. 3 singles. “But we're kind of the underdogs going in. We're pretty young. We've got seven sophomores.”
Three of those sophomores came up big for the Bucs in doubles action, as Grand Haven won three of four flights. At No. 4, sophomore Melissa Eveland and junior Lauren Kruggel prevailed by a 7-6 (8-6), 6-4 final; the No. 3 team of sophomore Maggie Ginocchio and junior Olivia Reed scored a 7-5, 6-4 win at No. 3; and the No. 2 team of sophomore Adi Smith and senior Leah Strong needed three sets before they tasted victory, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2.
Grand Haven coach Jaime Oppelander was impressed with her team's ability to fight through tough stretches – most notably Smith and Strong.
“I'm really happy to see two doubles accomplish what they did. They're really coming along,” she said. “They're a team that had a slower start, where they needed to get used to each other, but the last quad we played in and today, they've just improved by a giant amount.
“In general, the matches we won, we were more mentally tough than our opponent,” Oppelander added. “That helped us pull out those close two-set matches and the three-setter.”
The Bucs' lone loss in doubles was at its top flight, where Paige Reierson and Meghan Hendrickson dropped a 6-2, 6-1 decision. The duo struggled handling the strong smashes close to the net by Grandville's Megan Simsa and Katerina Buck.
Grandville better showcased its strength in singles, where three of four flights won in straight sets. Kelly was the lone breakthrough, as she went the distance while playing in temperatures that hit the upper 70s.
“We haven't played in this type of weather since try-outs,” she said. “I lost my focus in that second game. That heat got to me. I think I was dehydrated for a little bit, so I took a five-minute break (in between the second and third sets). I got my strength and my focus back.”
Kelly, who didn't play the sport last season because she was the captain of Grand Haven's Science Olympiad squad, said she doesn't try to overpower her opponents.
“My game is all about being consistent,” she said. “I'm not trying to have the most winners. I just want to make the move so they make a mistake.”
That plan paid off, as Kelly's steady returns forced Grandville's Wise into several errors into the net.
Oppelander said more than anything, she's trying to instill a sense of confidence within her squad, regardless if they win or come up short against upperclassmen opponents. It's especially vital at No. 1 singles with sophomore Erin Staal. She fell to Grandville senior Lauren Brickley, 6-0, 6-3, although Staal showcased a handful of very solid cross-court forehand winners that had her opponent frustrated in the second set. Staal couldn't contend with Brickley's strong drop shots and her returns when approaching the net were too often erratic.
“Erin's in a very tough spot at No. 1 singles, and as a sophomore, too,” Oppelander said. “This year, I've told her to just focus on trying to improve each match and not worry about the win-loss record. The bigger goal is personal improvement each time they step onto the court.”
In other singles flights, Bucs' junior Allison Cotter was blanked at No. 2, 6-0, 6-0; and sophomore Nikki Birkett was dealt a 6-1, 6-2 loss at No. 4.
Grand Haven will travel to the Holland Invite on Saturday, then has three-straight matches to open next week — at East Kentwood on Monday, at Hudsonville on Tuesday and home against Grand Rapids Catholic Central on Wednesday.