National Champions: The 1983 Principia women’s tennis team
STORY BY BAILEY BISCHOFF (C'17)
It was incorrectly reported in “Celebrating 100 Years of Principia Women in Sports” that Courtney Allen (C’87) and Sue (Godfrey) Huffman (C’88) were part of the 1983 NCAA Division III national champion tennis team. The championship team members were in fact Patricia (Hopkins) Goodspeed (C’86), Suzanne (Verheul) Kratz (C’85), Kristin Martin (C’83), Wendy (Clark) Mortner (US’80, C’84), Julia (Rhodes) Sanderude (C’83), Beth (Wachtel) Saxe (C’85), Patricia Suppes (C’83), and Ellie (Clark) Victor (US’81, C’85) . The high-achieving team was coached by Lyn Gerber (US’72,C’76). We apologize for the error. Continue reading to find out more about this high-achieving team.
When Ellie (Clark) Victor (US’81, C’85) reflects on the 1983 Principia women’s tennis team, what first comes to mind is the intensity of the training. Practices would start with jumping rope, sit-ups, push-ups, then 50 hits cross-court and 50 hits down the line. If a player hit the ball out, they’d start again at zero. Once the team was thoroughly warmed up, they’d start drills. At the end of practice, the running would begin. All team members would head just outside of campus and turn right, running down the large hill. Then, they’d run up the hill three times—backwards. Each demanding practice would finish with wind sprints across six courts.
The team, training with Coach Lyn Gerber (US’72, C’76) at the helm, had a singular goal in mind: to become NCAA Division III National Champions. Each practice with its abundance of drills and sprints became an opportunity to demonstrate the grit and discipline needed to achieve a high standard of play on the court.
The players applied this sense of determination outside the game of tennis, too. “The culture was definitely a strong work ethic, a strong team,” says Victor’s older sister, Wendy (Clark) Mortner (US’80, C’84). “We applied this ethic to all areas of our lives—academics, tennis, any other endeavors. It was an all-encompassing, ‘whole man’ concept.”
When it came to matches, the team didn’t limit themselves to competitors in the Midwest. They piled into vans and traveled the country, playing Division I and Division II schools to challenge themselves and perfect their game. Throughout their travels, they drew closer together, becoming strong supports for one another. Victor remembers lots of team bonding moments in the vans as they traveled to and from tournaments, including gluing and taping their shoes back together. “We were scrappy,” says Victor.
Players learned to lean on one other throughout the season. When speaking of her doubles partner, Mortner recalled, “We worked prayerfully on and off the court throughout our years playing together. We worked hard during practice and supported each other in our lives in and out of school—and that has carried through the rest of our lives.”
Striving for a high goal amongst trusted teammates helped players overcome personal challenges and develop fundamental philosophies that led to expansive growth. “I struggled with the idea of competition,” says Victor, “meaning for me to win, I had to beat someone else … but through all the deep talks that we had as a team, I came to a very different understanding. For me, it was about achieving my best and not allowing any excuse to prevent me from doing so. ‘I don’t like playing in the wind.’ Nope, that excuse is gone. ‘This team is Division I.’ Nope, that excuse is gone. So, what happens when you’ve removed every excuse? You step up and do it right.”
When they reached the national championships, the team was so used to playing at a high level that it felt natural. The year prior, in 1982, they had achieved third place at nationals. In 1983, the team arrived at the competition after an undefeated NCAA Division III season. The team continued their undefeated streak at the championship and after facing University of North Carolina, Greensboro, they reached the top of the podium. “I don’t think we were surprised when we won,” says Victor, “that’s what we were there to do.”
Along with the NCAA DIII team championship, many of the team members excelled in the doubles competition. Mortner and Kristin “Kristi” Martin (C’83) won the Flight 1 team doubles championship at nationals. Additionally, Suzanne (Verheul) Kratz (C’85) and Julie (Rhodes) Sanderude (C’83) won the Flight 2 doubles championship. Mortner and Martin later became the top NCAA Division III doubles team in the country at the 1983 Individual Doubles Championship.
For Mortner and Victor, tennis continues to be a central feature in their lives. Both veteran players organize regular local tennis games with dozens of other women in their hometowns. The grit and determination they learned on the tennis court alongside their teammates continues to power their lives today.
“Sports in general,” says Mortner, “allows you to express a lot of qualities and to discover yourself, and to see beyond limitations. You can accomplish those things if—in addition to practices and matches— you do the work mentally and spiritually.”
The 1983 women’s tennis team was inducted into Principia’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 2006.