March 12, 2002
Seven a.m. comes early on a college campus. After nights of parties, trips to San Francisco, 2 a.m. pepperoni with extra cheese and, yes parental-types, schoolwork, Berkeley is decidedly empty at such an early (or late) hour. The usually bustling corner of campus known as Bancroft and Telegraph avenues are silent as the sun begins to show itself from behind the hills to the east of campus.
It's also the wakeup call for nationally ranked Cal's women's tennis team. The players will rise promptly at seven, as a weight-lifting session is usually scheduled before eight. Once completed, it's off to class. Classes must be scheduled in the morning and early afternoon, as practice begins a 2:30 in the afternoon, and lasts until close to six at night. Conditioning follows before the athlete makes it back home, only to be followed by school work. When Bancroft and Telegraph get crowded again, the athlete remains, finishing the work before sleep sets in, and the process repeats itself again.
If you happen to be out at seven a.m., you might notice Jody Scheldt or Kristen Case walking down the hill in the general direction of the tennis courts. Scheldt and Case are part of the small, but distinct group of individuals at Cal known as Student Athletes. They are group who volunteer to follow that grueling schedule, day in and day out, seven days a week, no breaks, no exceptions, whether you're the top-ranked player in the world, or a walk-on trying to make the team.
"It gets to be pretty tiring-class, practice, weights and conditioning," explains Case. "I don't get home until late. You're hungry, you're tired, and you've got a lot of work ahead of you. It gets repetitive, but it's all worth it in the end. If I didn't have it, I'd miss it."
"Maybe I don't enjoy practicing, or (conditioning)," says Scheldt. "Once I get out there though, and I'm facing the other opponent, that's my time to show what I've been working for."
Ah yes, game day. Almost lost in the midst of the long days, the short nights and the eye-popping amount of work for the 19-year old students are the games, the cosmic melding of work and play where these athletes get to show their stuff.
If a player is having a bad day in other team sports, they can be substituted. But in tennis, once a match begins, the only ways out are to win, lose or forfeit. With only six total singles points to be had, one bad shot can quickly turn into a bad day for an entire team.
According to Case, team matches "are more motivating (than traditional individual tournaments) because you know that you're playing for yourself, but you're also playing for a team that you've practiced hard with, worked hard with for so many months to get to a certain goal. You want to win for yourself, but you want to win for them, too. It makes it a lot more fulfilling in the end."
With such little margin for error, the pressure increases. Each shot counts.
Scheldt is playing on the fifth court today, far from the crowds that surround the top spot. The ball is served, and she watches it come across the court. By the time her opponent follows through, Scheldt has already determined where and when the ball will land and adjusts. The ball drops over the net and Scheldt readies her backhand. Swinging, she connects, sending the sphere back to where it came with a satisfying pop. However, Scheldt missed her intended angle. The ball drops early, and connects instead with the top of the net. For a few fleeting moments, the ball hovers in space, then drops, hitting the net once more before meeting the court, and rolling back towards her.
Scheldt's face registers nothing. Her eyes drop for a moment, and she plays with the strings on her racquet. She adjusts them by the smallest of increments, and then returns to the baseline. This time, the ball clears the net and sails by the opponent. Point, California.
Was it the strings? Scheldt laughs at the idea.
"Pulling the strings is all about focus and concentration," she says. "They get crooked, it's just a thing to do. But you're not thinking about the strings, you're thinking about the next point."
It's a habit that Scheldt has had since she was seven or eight, when she first started to play tennis. After winning a series of awards in high school in junior events, where she was ranked ninth in Southern California at age 18, she passed up on offers from Santa Clara and Colorado to join the University of Iowa. Not the obvious choice for a girl from San Diego who lists going to the beach as one of her hobbies.
"Iowa's a huge athletic school," says Scheldt, attempting to explain her attraction. "On a home football weekend, the entire town just shuts down. I liked the (idea of a) big university in a small town. When I got there, though, I realized that there was just wheat and corn surrounding it."
Scheldt describes the obvious differences between San Diego and Iowa, and then some not-so-obvious complications of the large, rectangular state.
"I don't like playing indoor tennis," explains Scheldt. "Playing in southern California, all the matches are outside. Most of our matches at Iowa, from October to April, were indoors. That was not fun. In indoor tennis, the air is kind of stale, and there's no sunlight. All the surfaces of the courts are hard."
Scheldt injured her knees at Iowa mid-way through her freshman season, limiting her to doubles play, and decided to transfer to Cal. With the Bears, Scheldt has emerged as a doubles force, hooking up with 2001 Pac-10 Freshman of the Year Raquel Kops-Jones to form Cal's No. 1 doubles tandem. She has yet to become a full-time starter in the singles lineup, but instead contributes to the young team's depth there.
Depth, in fact, has been the Bears' strength through the opening month of its schedule. Through the first 10 matches, Cal's lineup has been solid on the front four courts, with the majority of the duties being split among the same four players. However, on courts five and six, where opposing teams might be weaker, Cal creates matchup problems through a rotating cast of talented players. In fact, Cal has posted a 14-6 record on the back two courts, including an impressive 8-2 mark at the sixth spot, where Scheldt has won three matches.
Case has been among this rotation throughout the season. After seeing her first career dual match action early in the season and winning her first three matches, she was returned to the bench when several players returned from nagging injuries. The sixth-court player is collegiate tennis' answer to the backup quarterback-a player who must be counted upon to play at a high level on a moment's notice, but who also must quietly return to the bench when asked.
"It does get discouraging when I am watching, and wishing I was out there," says Case, who watched from the stands as Scheldt played on court five. "It's fun to support the team (though), it was fulfilling for me to be with them."
Despite a freshman season of little activity, Case remained positive and continued her focus and dedication to the team.
"I knew that if I kept putting in the hard work, that I would be out there," said Case. "So that's what kept me wanting to work hard, just knowing that my time would come."
For the daughter of former tennis professional Ross Case, it didn't come easy. After winning her junior league in doubles and being named to her all-county team in Newport Beach, Calif. for three consecutive seasons, Case found herself with precious few offers following high school. After mulling over San Diego State, Colorado and Cal Poly, Case decided to walk on at Cal.
"I had a few other schools that I was looking to get scholarships from," Case recalled. "But, academically, they weren't as good as Cal. I decided that I would rather walk on at Cal and go to a good academic school, rather than go somewhere that wasn't as (challenging) academically."
Case played six matches all of her freshman season, all in fall tournament play. Despite her lack of playing time, she remained optimistic.
"I worked pretty hard over the summer," says Case. "I knew I wanted to come back this year, and I knew that if I was going to be given a chance to play, I wanted to do well for the team. I was coming (back) knowing that if I was going to be given that chance, I would be ready and would win the match for the team. Sitting out in most of the dual matches was tough, but it also pushed me to work harder."
She got her chance on opening day of the 2002 campaign. Against Santa Clara, playing on the fifth court, Case also got her first dual victory, a straight set win over the Bronco's Patti Ruiz. She picked up two more wins against Nevada and Pepperdine, not losing a set in either.
Case says it is her love for tennis that drives her.
"I enjoy doing what I'm doing," she explains. "I enjoy every aspect of what's going on right now. I enjoy school, I enjoy my friends, I enjoy tennis. Everything's going well, and I'm going to contribute and work hard for the team. I'm going to contribute what I can."
For these student athletes, there isn't any waiting for feedback on their work. Virtually every weekend during the spring, is their final exam. Their test? The opposition. Their grades? Wins and losses.
"It's not so much the person that you're playing," says Scheldt, "but the game, and what you need to do to defeat that game. It doesn't matter who they are or where they're from. It's just what's going on at that moment on the court."
Case sees things the same way.
"Tennis is mentally challenging," she explains. "You have to get into a zone, and not focus on what's going on outside the court. You have to focus on your game, on the ball, and not worry about who is standing on the other side of the net. Playing the ball, playing your game, the most effective game you can play to beat whatever kind of game that is going to be coming after you."
Does hard work, focus and determination pay off? Thus far, Cal is 8-2 in their first 10 dual matches of the season, and ranked 14th in the country. Only time will tell how far these Bears can go.