Junior Jelly Emmanoui (right). Photos by Patti Wilk
KANELAND—With conference meets and sectional tournaments on the horizon, it’s getting to be crunch time for Kaneland High School girls tennis.
Madi Jurenko, one-half of the Knights’ undefeated standout junior doubles team along with her partner, Jelly Emmanouil, has already fielded inquiries from friends at Kaneland wanting to know how the pair—which achieved all-state status last fall—will fare if they make a return trip downstate.
“We’re definitely getting a lot of questions,” Jurenko said. “ ‘Oh, are you going to win state?’”
Knights coach Tim Larsen said the sky’s the limit as far as Jurenko and Emmanouli’s potential, but even though they own a 23-0 record as of Wednesday, crowning them state champions is a bit premature.
“It wouldn’t be wise to set a goal as state champions,” he said. “There’s a lot of talent around the state, but it’s safe to say they could be competitive with anybody they play (against).”
Jurenko and Emmanouli boosted their record past the 20-victory plateau last weekend by going 3-0 at the Geneva Invitational. The duo also was undefeated last season prior to the conference and sectional meets, suffering its first loss in the sectional semifinals. Jurenko and Emmanouli went on to win the third-place sectional match, and then posted a 4-2 record at state.
Not bad for a team that hadn’t played together at all before last year.
As a freshman in 2011, Jurenko teamed up with senior Amelia Napiorkowski, and they ended up advancing to the state tourney. Following Napiorkowski’s graduation, however, Jurenko and Emmanouli teamed up. It took some getting used to for Emmanouli to adjust to doubles play because Jurenko explained that her new partner had never really played much doubles.
But one would have assumed they had been playing together for quite a while by season’s end.
“We complement each other, and we move well on the court,” Jurenko said. “We talk to each other, and we’re good friends. I’m really good at the baseline hitting groundstrokes. Jelly has a really good wingspan and is good at hitting volleys. And she’s taller than me, so it works pretty well.”
“There’s a bond with doubles players that’s really not like anything else you see in sports,” Larsen said. “The first year, neither one of them knew what to expect, but they had a lot of respect for each; both knew that the other one was a good tennis player. It took a while to catch on with a rhythm as a team, as far as constructing a point; that didn’t happen right away. But at this point, they’ve been on court so long together that you see them reacting to the ball together. It’s something special at this point. They’re two very, very special players.”
Larsen said Jurenko and Emmanouli also are master strategists during a match—an intangible that will particularly benefit them should they return to state.
“Their biggest strength is their ability to adjust their strategy as the match progresses,” Larsen said. “These girls can hit every shot that they need. They have the ability to be smart on the tennis court, not emotional. We’re going to go out and try to win points for the next three weeks, and hopefully it works out well. That’s the goal.”
Girls tennis isn’t divided into classes like nearly every other IHSA sport. Everyone is on equal footing at the state tournament, regardless of the size of a particular school. Jurenko and Emmanouli could be thrown into the mix against teams from perennial state powers such as Hinsdale Central, Lake Forest, Deerfield and New Trier, each of which easily doubles Kaneland’s enrollment.
“It’s intimidating to know these schools have state winners and have good programs,” Jurenko said. “We don’t sell ourselves short, but we know it’s going to be a tough match. We just go into it with an open mind. We definitely want to do even better (at state) than last year. We’re going to have to work really hard, but we want to try and accomplish more at state this year and win more matches.”
The same dynamics will hold true for Sammie Schrepferman, the Knights’ No. 1 singles player who also is seeking a return trip to state. Schrepferman is putting together quite a season herself, with an overall record that stands at 21-2 prior to the start of this week.
“At this point of season I’m playing better than I did last year,” she said. “I’m able to control my emotions. I’m more focused on my play, instead of opponents dictating play to me.”
The only two blemishes on Schrepferman’s record are losses to Geneva’s Kirby Einek, who defeated her 6-4, 6-1 on Saturday, and to Angela Ye of Sycamore.
“They’re very consistent and aggressive players,” Larsen said. “When she plays against somebody that she knows is a very, very good tennis player, Sammie steps up and plays a great match. It’s fun tennis to watch. Sammie doesn’t like to lose, and I don’t either, but I’m proud of how she plays in those matches.
“Sammie hits the ball well and is serving the ball very hard, which is such a good weapon for her,” Larsen added. “The big issue for Sammie is measuring up her opponent, how much pace you need to generate, where you need to place the ball. It’s like she struggles with herself and she gets frustrated, but she always ends up landing on her feet. There are a ton of things she can do to win a point (with her shots). She figures it out, but the struggle is figuring it out.”
Schrepferman lost both of her state matches in 2012, and of course wants to return to state to better her showing of a year ago.
“Last year it was more nerves for me than anything,” she said. “I expect to be more calm if I make it to state and just go play. I should not go in expecting things, just fight for every point. Everyone (at state) is there for a reason because they won their spots (at sectionals).”