Story courtesy of Matt Higgins – Assistant Executive Director of the MIAC
ST. PETER, Minn. — On April 24, 1991, the Gustavus Adolphus College women’s tennis team dropped a narrow 5-4 decision to St. Olaf College. Little did the team know at the time, but that would be the start of some significant history.
The following season, the Gusties went undefeated in Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) play to claimed the league championship. Then they did it again in 1993. And again in 1994. And again, and again. In fact, Gustavus went on to win 20 consecutive MIAC championships without losing a single conference match during its two decades of dominance. For those keeping score at home, that’s 205 consecutive league wins.
The Gusties’ roll continued into last season, 2012, as they started the season 9-0 in MIAC play and ran the unfathomable streak to 214 straight victories. However, on April 29, 2012… 21 years and five days since the team’s last loss … Gustavus ran into an also-undefeated Carleton team that was finally able to do what no team could in more than 20 years. The Knights – in a stirring, 5-4 match that was eventually decided by a super breaker at No. 3 singles – beat the Gusties, and became the first team to hoist the MIAC Championship trophy in two decades.
Now that one of the most impressive streaks ever recorded in college tennis – especially in the MIAC – has come to an end, it’s only fitting to pause and look back at just how Gustavus and Head Coach Jon Carlson were able to pile up victories and conference titles without so much as a single conference loss in such an incredibly long span.
“Through that streak,” Carlson said, “we had phenomenal players who wanted to continue a tradition of excellence. I feel honored that I had the chance to coach such great tennis players with incredible drive. It’s given me stories I’ll be able to re-tell to future teams forever.”
During those 20 years, the numbers for Carlson’s crew are staggering. He now has an all-time MIAC coaching record of 219-2, with the 20 MIAC titles and 214 consecutive victories, in addition, Gustavus claimed five consecutive MIAC Playoff Championships, starting with the event’s inception in 2007, and also running through 2011, as his team was defeated by Carleton (5-3) in the 2012 postseason title match as well.
Individual honors have also piled up alongside the team success. In his tenure, Carlson has coached 44 separate athletes to 123 All-Conference honors and 18 individuals to 32 All-America honors, including two-time NCAA Division III Doubles Champions Tara Houlihan and Lyndsey Palen (2005, 2006).
‘Every team is just one team’
After the consecutive victories reached triple digits and the conference titles piled up year after year, it could have been very easy for the pressure to continue such an amazing run to mount – both on Carlson and his players. But as the coach explains his annual approach to his team, it becomes clearer how the Gusties were always able to focus on the task at hand instead of the big – and potentially ominous – picture.
“It really was the drive of the girls to want to continue to win, year after year and match after match,” Carlson said. “I reminded them that every team is just one team. It could even be the exact same names next year, but you’re all different people. Your individual team gets to write a chapter in the history of Gustavus women’s tennis, and it’s how you want to be remembered … what you want to do with that chapter that’s important.”
That ability to compartmentalize each season as its own entity – rather than one piece to a giant successful puzzle – is as telling about Gustavus’ sustained success as any. With each MIAC title and undefeated conference season serving as a wholly new endeavor, and one that was routinely achieved year after year, the numbers started to pile up and take on a life of themselves. And even as they grew to legendary proportions, Carlson still kept his teams in the moment, rather than the record book.
“It kind of did just add up,” he said. “I just can’t remember a time where I ever felt pressure about the streak, as much as wanting the current team I was coaching to have as much success as they possibly could. It really was the drive of the girls to want to continue to win, year after year and match after match. They were filled with as much or more pride to continue the success as I was.”
Tim Kennedy was the Gustavus sports information director for all 20 championship seasons before becoming the school’s vice president for marketing and communication in 2011-12 and had a front row seat for the streak. His top observation mirrors Carlson’s. The team’s ability to actually live by the old sports cliché of, “one game at a time,” came in handy as the impressive numbers piled up.
“Coach Carlson’s philosophy was always to focus on the next match and the streak was not ever really talked about,” Kennedy said. “People were aware of it, but the most important match was always the next one. The fact that Jon could maintain that level of focus for the program as the players changed each year was the part that impressed me the most.”
So in addition to the ability to separate each team’s current goals from the weight of carrying such a remarkable baton from year to year, what has made Gustavus so good for so long? Clearly coaching and recruiting are two hallmarks of any great programs, but Carlson indicated there were two other factors that played a huge role in his team’s long-sustained success.
He emphasized finding the right kind of players that were equipped with drive first and talent second. He stressed throughout the run that in such a results-based sport like tennis, it was extremely important that players find a way to focus on improvement over wins, and when they reach their potential, the victories will come.
“Recruiting has been an important part,” Carlson said, “It’s been players who have come in with great credentials, but also players with great drive. Sometimes the zero sum of a team sport can take away from an individual’s performance, but tennis is based on rankings and your result. It’s hard for kids to stop focusing just on winning. The kids who have truly blossomed are the ones who have focused on getting better and improving, and applying that improvement.”
“[Carlson] recruited quality people, who wanted to get a great education and excel in tennis and then worked hard to help them become the best they could be,” added Kennedy. “He has always taken great pride in helping his student athletes grow personally and as tennis players.”
It’s almost ironic that taking the focus off winning is one of the key philosophies that ultimately helped Gustavus win so many matches for so long.
Another tangible element to the Gusties’ success has been conditioning. Carlson said his players made it an emphasis over the years to be in the best possible shape in order to be supremely prepared for those late-match situations that often define a champion. In many instances, his players even took their conditioning into their owns hands, and demonstrated their desire to remain atop the MIAC standings.
“The girls took a lot of pride in their conditioning,” Carlson said. “They always wanted to feel they as good or better than their opponent in terms of conditioning. There were many times when I’d let them run conditioning in practice, and they’d put themselves through something way harder than I ever put together. They became known for it, and they knew if a match came down to a third set, they could hang with whoever they were playing.”
‘All pretty inspirational’
When asked to reflect back on the 214 consecutive wins and 20-straight titles, Carlson paused a moment to think, and admitted it’s tough to recall one or two moments out of two decades of blissful memories, and his philosophy about each team having its own identity resurfaced.
“Every team and every player have their own story,” he said, “and they’re all pretty inspirational. There are so many amazing stories of players facing different levels of adversity and getting through it. Some were severe, and some were just having to deal with the ups and downs of a tennis career.”
Carlson said that some of his fondest memories of such a golden era didn’t always necessarily revolve around his stars. Instead, he reminisced about some of his players who overcame obstacles or exceeded expectations with a combination of will and drive. For instance, Kendall Larson wasn’t a highly recruited player coming out of high school, and was 16th out of 16 on the depth chart as a freshman. But she worked her way up to 10th as a sophomore, cracked the top six and the starting lineup as a junior, and all her efforts culminated in her senior season, when she earned All-America honors.
“Kendall Larson had a great attitude and great work ethic,” Carlson beamed. “Very few schools recruited her and she developed into an All-American.”
Laura Selby and Jenny White were two other former Gusties that Carlson singled out. Selby overcame what appeared to be a career-ending injury, and had a phenomenal senior season to help Gustavus keep its streak alive. White had an up-and-down career as an underclassmen, but found the secret to unlock her potential as a senior and wins – and individual honors – followed.
“My mind doesn’t always go to some of the amazing players,” Carlson said. “It’s people like Laura Selby who never played varsity, and was ready to join the lineup as a senior. Then, the fall of her senior year, she came down with a joint condition that would likely end her career. But her and her doctor figured out a solution, she made the varsity, and played phenomenal her senior year.
“Jenny White wanted to win more than anyone I ever coached, and her first three years, it was something that held her back. She put a ton of pressure on herself. She came back her senior year determined to just enjoy the ride, and she became an All-American. Once she got over that mental hurdle, she was terrific.”
Kennedy’s fondest memory of the Gusties’ streak came in 1998 and coincided with a tragic time for the campus as a whole. In 1998, a tornado devastated St. Peter and the Gustavus campus. As the storm hit, Carlson’s was coaching one of his exceptional teams on their spring break trip to Arizona. At the time, the team was 9-2, with its only losses coming to Division I foes Iowa State and Nebraska. However, the Gusties women’s tennis team responded to the immense adversity with one of their finest seasons on record.
“While the team was in Arizona, the tornado hit campus and most of the players lost all their possessions and the Swanson Tennis Center was destroyed,” Kennedy said. “The team had to play all of its matches for the rest of the year on the road. There was a lot of uncertainty about what was going to happen at Gustavus, but Jon Carlson and his squad would go 10-0 in MIAC play, win the MIAC Tourney in convincing fashion and go on to finish third at the NCAA Championships compiling an overall record of 21-5.
“The efforts of that team in a difficult time was an inspiration to all working to rebuild the College.”
‘So proud to be a Gustie’
After going so long – 214 MIAC matches and more than 20 years – between conference losses, it’s natural to wonder how Carlson and his team felt about finally seeing the streak come to an end. It would be natural to expect disappointment or frustration, but the coach felt an entirely different emotion about his team after its 5-4 loss to Carleton – pride.
“I didn’t feel a letdown when we lost,” Carlson said. “[My team] worked their tails off to be the best team in the conference. It wasn’t so much that a long streak was broken, I was just disappointed that team didn’t get to win a championship. The matches we lost to Carleton – especially in the Playoffs – were some of my favorite memories of all time. The girls battled so hard, and it even tops a lot of the victories along the way. It was as inspiring a match as any Gustavus women’s tennis team has ever played. It was so cool, and I was so proud to be their coach.”
The end of the streak brought numerous former players, fans and others associated with Gustavus tennis out of the woodwork to reach out to Carlson and his team. However, the conversations weren’t ones filled with condolences. Instead, Carlson used the opportunity to share his pride in his current team, and keep alums connected to the program.
“I gave almost the exact same response every time,” he said. “I always said, ‘Yeah, it’s a bummer, but you should have been at the match. You would’ve been so proud to be a Gustie. The way they competed and how hard they battled to try to win was amazing.’ It’s cool that the alums feel a connection, but I think that connection will continue because of the program we run, rather than the streak we had.”
Carlson wasn’t necessarily surprised another MIAC team eventually rose to Gustavus’ level. Despite the Gusties reign at the top, the league has been strong throughout the streak, particularly at the start and at the end. Carlson said when he took over, the league was regularly putting two or three teams in the top 10 at nationals. Lately, women’s tennis has been on the rise in the MIAC, evidenced by Carleton’s success under Head Coach Luciano Battaglini, and heading into the 2013 season, there are numerous teams – Gustavus and Carleton included – who could make it the most interesting championship race in years.
“People are doing a great job of recruiting and coaching,” Carlson said. “Carleton won the title last year, and [Battaglini] runs a great program. But so does Scott Nesbit at St. Olaf, and so do Terry Peck at St. Thomas and Ben Hageseth at St. Catherine and numerous other coaches. There are a lot of good programs in our conference.”
That conference enters 2013 with a new look – one that has Carleton as the defending champ and Gustavus thrust into the role of contender for the first time decades. Carlson doesn’t anticipate the team’s new role changing the way they’ll approach the season. Instead, they’ll just go back to their, “one season and one match at-a-time,” philosophy.
“It probably should feel different, but it doesn’t,” he said of no longer being the favorite. “The conference is heavy up top, and there are a lot of good teams. We know we need to prepare and do the best we can to try to win another conference championship. The one thing I’ve always thought at the start of each season is that we could have a chance to win it, and this year’s no different. I’m excited to work with the girls, and get them the opportunity to do the best they possibly can.”
Amazingly, the Gustavus men’s tennis team enters the 2013 season still riding another incredible streak. A MIAC championship this season would make it a quarter century – 25 titles in a row – for the Gustie men, which makes the dual streaks even more impressive when stacked side-by-side. However, through the conjoined championship runs, both programs have preferred to reference the simultaneous good fortune sparingly.
“Unbelievably, both the men’s and women’s streaks were concurrent and the men’s streak is still active,” Kennedy said. “To think that I was working with players and coaches that had gone 20 years without losing a regular season match was remarkable. However, with that said, we rarely talked about the streaks. The coaches preferred that we only mention it once a year in releases and that was after the season was over and the streaks had been extended.”
Now that the women’s streak has reached its end, a more in-depth look back was certainly warranted. A look back not only at the 20 titles and 214 consecutive victories, but at the coaches and countless players whose contributions combined to sustain greatness for so long. While championships and victories and streaks and historical accomplishments are certainly cause for celebration, in the MIAC and Division III, the true focus is less on simply numbers and trophies, and more on the people who achieve such feats. The Gustavus women’s tennis program, throughout its historic run, is a perfect example.
“It was a joy being involved with the tennis program, because the student athletes were so bright, fun, and hard working,” Kennedy said. “Jon Carlson has a tremendous work ethic and he is so passionate about Gustavus and our tennis program. All of Jon’s players represent Gustavus with class and pride and they are a lot of fun to be around.”