BRISTOL - The St. Paul girls tennis team has not lost often this season and a big reason for that is that its top two singles players have not lost a single match.
The Falcons ended the regular season with a 13-2 record and have advanced through the first two rounds of the NVL team tournament and Natasha Kempes and Victoria Kilbourne still have not suffered a defeat.
The two have combined to lose only seven games over the course of the NVL tournament so far, including Kempes shutting out her opponent in the second-round match against Naugatuck on Wednesday. Their results in the postseason are indicative of the success they have had all throughout the spring.
“It’s everything. They’re the backbone of our team,” St. Paul coach Beth Hines said. “Natasha won the conference last year as an individual player and we’re going into [the finals of the NVL tournament] strong.”
Both Kempes and Kilbourne were in the running for last season’s NVL title but Kempes knocked her teammate out in the semifinal round. But that could not drive a wedge between them. Because they play at No. 1 and No. 2, they usually play their matches on adjacent courts and that proximity has allowed them to support each other during matches.
“It’s meant a lot,” Kilbourne said about sharing her undefeated season with Kempes. “We’re always right next to each other on the court and we always cheer each other on every match. So that’s definitely a factor in it, as well.”
“Victoria and I have always been very close on the court and getting to play alongside her and having the opportunity to cheer her on, it's really something that I love doing,” Kempes said, “and I'm so happy that I got that privilege to do that this year. I think the relationship and how we push ourselves on the courts allows us to be even closer off the courts.”
In addition to each other, Kempes and Kilbourne also cite their teammates and coaches as having provided important support throughout this season.
“We’ve been working really hard, our coach has been helping us a lot so I definitely think that’s a factor,” Kilbourne said. “Our team is just so supportive so that’s definitely been a big help and I think that’s led to a lot of the wins.”
Kempes is in her senior season with the Falcons, so having this kind of season in her last hurrah with St. Paul means a lot, especially because of what she has overcome to achieve it.
“I am honestly so lucky to be having the success that I am having during this senior season,” she said. “I've had this knee injury bugging me for some time now but I'm just glad it hasn't set me back so far.”
But just because she has not yet lost a match this spring, Kempes knows it’s not going to be any easier to leave after this season.
“Truthfully, it's going to be so hard having to leave these girls,” she said. “Playing high school tennis has taught me so much, from leadership to sportsmanship, and it's even helped me to work on my communication skills but I'm going to be so sad the last time I play with these girls, but I know they'll do great things for years to come.”
With Kempes dealing with the knee injury, Kilbourne has had the chance to move up to No. 1 a few times and was more than capable of holding her own, as her record indicates.
“I’d put Tori up against any No. 1 in the NVL,” Hines said. “She’ll come through, definitely. She might have some strong competition from Woodland but I really think that, heading into the NVL individuals, she’s a contender for being all-conference. You have to get to the semis and I fully expect her to do so.”
With Kempes graduating in June, Kilbourne is her heir-apparent and has shown that she can handle the pressure and responsibility that comes with the territory. And it’s not just Hines that has taken notice.
“Victoria is such a great player, without a doubt - she's head strong, physically strong, everything you need to be to have success at a match,” Kempes said. “She is going to have no problem dealing with that pressure and playing those tougher opponents. She's going to do great things, whether on the court or off the court. She's an amazing person and I'm so honored to have gotten to know her and play with her.”
Josh Kestenbaum can be reached at 860-973-1811 or firstname.lastname@example.org
On Twitter: @K_baum30