For the first time in program history, JMU women’s tennis enters the season as the reigning CAA champion.
The Dukes concluded their 2018-19 season by defeating four-time consecutive champions William & Mary 4-2 to win their first CAA Championship. JMU faced William & Mary during the regular season last year but lost, 3-4.
The arrival of head coach Shelley Jaudon brought stability, determination and success to the women’s tennis program. Jaudon came from her alma mater, the University of Alabama, where she had a standout career as a collegiate athlete before eventually returning to serve as an assistant coach.
“I never thought I’d go back [to Alabama],” Jaudon said. “I went back to help fix the culture and change it back to what I had known as a player. When the JMU job opened up, I felt like the program [at Alabama] was in a good place, and we had made the progress we wanted to, and it was time to be a head coach again.”
Jaudon said her determination to win the championship stemmed from a conversation she had with then-seniors Abby Amos and Emma Petersen. She said she asked them what they wanted out of their final season, and both responded by saying they wanted to win the CAA title.
Jaudon never stopped working toward their goal.
“We practiced for it; we played for it,” Jaudon said. “So, when the moment happened, it was such [a] joy for them.”
With Amos and Petersen gone, the team is left with only one senior player this season — Jona Roka, who’s had a successful career playing tennis for JMU. She was named CAA Player of the Week in her freshman and sophomore seasons. She and her partner, sophomore Daria Afanasyeva, were named CAA’s Doubles Team of the Week last season, and Roka also won the match point in the championship against William & Mary. She currently ranks No. 9 in program history for singles wins and No. 5 in program history for individual doubles wins.
Roka also had the unique experience of being the only player on the roster to undergo a coaching change. Roka said this taught her how to adapt, and she said she thinks it’ll help her succeed in the workforce after she graduates in May.
Roka said she struggled a bit on the court last season but that Jaudon and her close bond with her teammates helped get her through the tough times and kept her motivated.
“Without [Jaudon’s] motivation and push, I probably wouldn’t have had the result I did during the championship final that day,” Roka said.
Roka also credits her status as the only senior on the team for helping her grow into a leadership position and build her character. Being surrounded by younger teammates has also helped Roka improve on the court. She said being around them has shown her where she can improve.
Jaudon had nothing but positive remarks for Roka’s perseverance and character, even when she was struggling.
“She shows up the same person every day,” Jaudon said.
Assistant coach Kimmy Guerin also praised Roka’s consistency and leadership skills. “We’re lucky to have Jona, someone who’s been there before and can teach the younger ones what to do in certain situations.”
Not only has Roka impressed her coaches, but she’s also transitioned into a leadership position for her younger teammates. Sophomore Daniela Voloh said Roka “definitely helped with the transition into collegiate tennis.”
Guerin was another new addition to the team last season, joining Jaudon as her assistant coach after playing professionally. She said winning the title was “probably the coolest thing.”
“[It was] awesome for Shelley and I to be the first coaching pair to be able to accomplish that,” Guerin said.
The team said it doesn’t feel any pressure to win a consecutive championship. Voloh said it’s natural to have some pressure because without it, “mentally, you’ve kind of told yourself you’re done.”
“I don’t think we feel pressure,” Jaudon said. “If we have a target on our back, we’re going to try to embrace that.”
While JMU prepares to defend its CAA title, Voloh said she’s excited to “just be a family, playing as a team and stepping out on the court together.” She said the team is extremely close, and Roka and Voloh both stated how much their bonds with each other contributed to their successful season.
Roka said she hopes to continue to develop more team and leadership skills and build character that’ll stay with her when the season ends.
Now that Jaudon has one season — and one championship — under her belt, she’s ready to take the next step.
“We’re really just trying to get better,” Jaudon said. “We’re trying to take the program to another level … pushing the girls to strive for more, more of everything.”
Contact Courtney Ryder at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more tennis coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.