Belles senior helps lead team to third MIAA conference crown
BY JOE HETTLER
Elisa Ryan doesn't think she plays tennis like most of her competitors. That's probably because she thinks she plays the game like a guy.
"The way I play is different than the way most of the girls in our conference play," said Ryan, The Observer's 2002-03 Outstanding Saint Mary's Senior Athlete of the Year. "It's a little less accurate, which is negative, but it's a lot more aggressive. I play like a boy to an extent."
No matter what style she may play, it has worked for the Saint Paul, Minn. product throughout her career as a Belle. Ryan's helped lead Saint Mary's to three straight MIAA championships. She's won the conference title at No. 6 and No. 5 singles during her career, as well as at No. 3 and No. 2 doubles. A two-time captain of the Belles squad, Ryan has been a difference maker in pushing Saint Mary's to the top of the MIAA tennis standings every season.
"She brings the most spirit to the team," Saint Mary's tennis coach Dee Stevenson said. "She's the one that goes out and gets people pumped up and enthused every day."
It didn't take long for Ryan to become interested in tennis. When she could barely hold a racket, Ryan and her family would watch their dad play at the local tennis courts. In between sets, Ryan and her sister would get a chance to grab a racket and hit some balls. As she grew older, Ryan and a male friend would practice and play against each other. This helped mold Ryan's aggressiveness and athleticism, which she would use to mow down her opponents in college.
"The best basketball players are the rugged ones, the ones that play pickup ball," Ryan said. "I play dirty, scrappy, pickup tennis. I play ticked off sometimes and my stroke isn't as graceful as other girls, but at the same time, athletically, I think I'm more well-rounded."
Ryan credits her intense summer tennis matches as good preparations for high school and college tennis. Each summer, Ryan would travel around the Midwest to play other highly-competitive girls, and at one point was ranked as high as No. 17 in the Midwest's 18-year old and under division. This competition made Ryan battle-tested for college tennis.
"If you look around the conference, all the big name players have played on the USTA summer tour," Ryan said. "It's made more of a difference than just playing high school tennis."
Three years of success
Ryan entered her freshman year as a two-sport athlete, making both the basketball and tennis team. However, after practicing both sports three times a week for four hours a night, and at least one of the two sports three other days during the week, Ryan became exhausted and decided to quit basketball after the season ended.
"I couldn't just quit during the season, so I waited until it was over," Ryan said.
Ryan returned to tennis the next season focused and refreshed. She won the conference title at No. 6 singles and at No. 3 doubles and helped lead the Belles to their first of three conference titles.
During her junior year, Ryan moved up to No. 5 singles and won the conference title and added her second MIAA title at No. 3 doubles. The Belles won another MIAA title as well.
But when her opponents couldn't slow her down, the ulna bone in her right arm did. Ryan was diagnosed with a medical problem, similar to the one that ended professional tennis player Jimmy Connors' career. The ulna bone in Ryan's right arm was longer than normal and caused her problems when gripping the tennis racket. By the time her senior year arrived, many of the ligaments in her wrist were damaged and Ryan had to undergo surgery last September to correct the problem.
Ryan couldn't play tennis until January and the layoff put Ryan behind her teammates and opponents. Plus, Ryan was unsure whether she would be able to play at both doubles and singles.
But when the season began, Ryan was there, playing both No. 5 singles and No. 2 doubles. This kind of determination is one of the biggest assets Ryan brought to her Belles teammates.
"She's very intense and has a never-give-up attitude," Stevenson said. "She always set a good example of how to work hard on the court for her teammates."
Ryan finished her senior year by winning at No. 2 doubles and second at No. 5 singles at the MIAA tournament. She compiled a 12-1 singles record and a 10-4 doubles record during the regular season.
Rewarded for her work
At the conclusion of the season, Ryan received her team's PHDA award, an honor given to a player that demonstrates the most pride, hustle, desire and attitude. It was Ryan's first time receiving the accolade after getting the Most Dedicated award during her first three years on the team.
But the PHDA honor was small in comparison to the MIAA award Ryan received soon after. The Sue Little Memorial Award is given to an MIAA senior tennis athlete that showed the bets sportsmanship during her four years in college. Ryan was surprised she received the award, but said she always strived to uphold the etiquette of tennis.
"Personally, I'm shocked I got it," Ryan said. "There's a whole part of etiquette that goes along with tennis that I feel is a crucial part of the sport."
Ryan was only the second Saint Mary's player to receive such an honor.
Ryan also picked up Saint Mary's Improvement Award for her dedication and play over the last few years. The honor was just another one for Ryan, whose Belles career ended with the team's third straight MIAA championship a few weeks ago.
Stevenson said it will be difficult to replace a leader like Ryan, especially one that has been so consistent over the last four years.
"We're definitely going to miss her next year," Stevenson said.
All Sports Stories for Friday, July 11, 2003