There’s a video that surfaced just after the Kansas women’s tennis team clinched its first ever Big 12 tournament title in late April that shows elated KU coach Todd Chapman celebrating the victory with the full force of his body.
Arms extended, back arched, muscles flexed, voice at full volume, Chapman’s celebratory pose was the culmination of six years of putting everything he had into getting the Kansas tennis program back on track.
And Chapman, whose 13th-ranked team will open NCAA Tournament play at 1 p.m. Friday at the Jayhawk Tennis Center, had another name for the post-match pose.
“You mean when I did the Michael Jackson, up on the toes there,” he joked earlier this week, shortly after learning his squad would take on Denver University in Round 1. “I’ve gotten some crap about it. I’ve had some people mess with me about it. And I’ve had some people tell me that it was a cool moment. And it was.”
That moment, which followed the Jayhawks winning their first ever Big 12 tournament title, sent a wave of memories flooding back to Chapman’s brain.
“It was just a reflection of the work that everyone’s put into this program, not just myself,” said the former Texas Tech assistant who helped lead the Red Raiders to Big 12 titles in 2012 and 2013 before coming to KU. “Former players, current players, just everything. It was just a satisfaction, a relief, an excitement and thanking the man upstairs for giving us the opportunity we were in. It was all that wrapped up in one, just jubilation of the moment.”
The goal from here is to have more moments like that, and Chapman’s crew gets its first opportunity at a return to euphoria today against No. 47 DU.
While their focus this week has been razor sharp and on nothing more than their opening-round match, the Jayhawks were able to spend a little time reflecting on what got them to this point. According to senior Anastasia Rychagova, Chapman, along with assistant coach Caroline Lilley, was an enormous part of the process.
“Oh my gosh,” said Rychagova, trying to keep the tears from forming in her eyes. “He’s a dad. Like, he’s for sure family. He’s done a lot and he cares so much. And there’s no way we could’ve accomplished so much without our coaches. They push us so hard every day and that’s what helped us get better. You always need the person in the right direction.”
Said Chapman of the message to his team earlier this week as they began preparations for their first-round match with Denver: “We’re still hoping we’ve got some firsts and some things that haven’t been done in a long time in front of us.”
The Jayhawks and Pioneers (17-5) met in last year’s NCAA Tournament, with Kansas winning that match, 4-3, to advance to the second round, where they bowed out.
Getting to that point again — and beyond — is a major goal for Chapman’s team, and their success so far this season is an indicator that anything is possible.
“This team’s built for more than just winning the conference championship,” Chapman said of a Kansas team seeded No. 14 overall in the 64-team tournament and hosting for the first time since 1997. “Whether we do or not, we’ll find out come Friday. But we believe in what we have, and my expectation of them is to live in the moment but also to live in the moment of what we can be and the opportunities we have in front of us.”
In No. 1 singles player Rychagova (ranked No. 17 in the nation) and doubles partners Janet Koch and Nina Khmelnitckaia, who spent time ranked in the No. 1 spot in the nation this season, Kansas (19-4) has both the talent and the experience needed to make a deep run.
But the Jayhawks' chances this weekend and their success to this point go well beyond those three players.
In fact, when Chapman was hired to take over the Kansas program six years ago, he spoke during his interview of wanting to build a program that was rock solid from the top spot all the way down the lineup.
KU’s Big 12 tournament triumph over Texas featured just that, with No. 4, 5 and 6 singles players (freshman Sonia Smagina, Khmelnitckaia and junior Maria Toran Ribes) picking up key victories that made hoisting the trophy — and Chapman’s celebration — possible.
That vision of a plan a long time in the making was also part of the reason Chapman’s response to KU’s Big 12 title victory was packed with so much passion.
“When you work with them as much as we do, you’re living it with them,” he said. “Even though you’re not swinging the racket or playing the points, I wear my emotions on my sleeve. That’s me at the root. I’ve tried to act a little more stoic and act like I’ve been there before, but in moments like that, I think it’s cool for your players and everybody else to see how much it means to you and how much it means to your program.”
Today’s winner will advance to a 1 p.m. second-round match on Saturday, where it will face the winner of Friday’s other first-round match played in Lawrence between Boston College and Florida.