MARION - As the prep volleyball season nears the midway point, Cedar Rapids Xavier identified a vital ingredient if the Saints are to retain their No. 1 ranking in Class 4A.
Now is the time to turn up the defense.
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MOUNT VERNON — The brisk afternoon air chills the bodies of several students and makes the sun’s off-and-on presence noticeable to all.
Students shift from foot to foot, desperately trying to absorb every ray of warmth that escapes the clouds. Unprepared for the weather but happy to finally be outside, they hit the track.
The team splits into smaller groups that tackle the two-lap jog at different paces. Somewhere in the middle are many small freshmen trying to get a feel for how practices work. Fresh air pours into the lungs of the athletes, reminding them practice has only just begun.
As the jog comes to a bittersweet close they head back to the small, enclosed area dedicated to the sport they play — the tennis courts.
Experienced athletes grab their rackets, partner up and begin to hit the small, yellow ball back and forth. The beginners follow suit, only with much less coordination and fluidity. The balls bounce around in a reckless manner, seemingly uncontrollable. As more athletes join in, court space and balls become scarce. Despite the disarray of all the tennis balls hurtling in random directions, the athletes continue to smile and have fun. The light-hearted and stress-free environment allows anxious newcomers to relax and just play.
The new players gaze across the courts, watching the older girls consistently rally the ball back and forth. Their rackets hit the ball and it sails swiftly over the net.
In the herd of athletes one stands apart from the rest. The girl’s hair falls down her back in two even braids that shine in the sunlight. She stands with defined openness and lets her racket dangle at her side. When the racket makes contact with the ball, it sings the story of an athlete who dares the sport to challenge her.
Senior Wynne Vandersall moves with certainty on the court and pours purpose into every step. Despite the season just beginning, Vandersall is no stranger to the art of tennis.
Last year, with two years of experience under her belt, Vandersall was introduced a new element to the game she loved — her first steady partner, who also happened to be her older sister, Josia Vandersall.
“It was incredibly fun and knowing each other so well really helped with tennis,” Vandersall said.
Being able to push one another and knowing each other’s strengths and weaknesses made the duo unstoppable.
Vandersall attributes the start of her tennis journey partly to her sister. Watching her compete in previous years inspired Vandersall to play as well.
“When Josia would play up at the net she loved smashing it down so hard that the ball actually went over the fence,” Vandersall said. “It was amazing and I still strive to do that.”
The two helped Mount Vernon win its first conference title for tennis and the partners made an appearance at the state tournament. Vandersall described state as a very nerve wracking, yet exciting experience. The sisters battled hard and were able to continuously improve their level of play, but didn’t win a match.
Vandersall has been playing tennis since the spring of her freshman year, deciding she wanted to try something new. As a beginner, she struggled with backhand and lacked the confidence it would take to improve her position on the team. With lots of learning and work to be done, she successfully played JV doubles.
“I won because I worked hard,” she said. “My strategy was to just out-hustle everyone else.”
It wasn’t until the end of her first season that she realized in order to make it to the top, she would have to improve her strategy. In addition to JV doubles, Vandersall competed in one varsity singles match at the regional meet. The exciting newness of competing in her very first singles match brought many nerves and lots of promise. With encouragement from Coach Crystal Eskelsen, she fought to the very end of that match.
“I came from behind and was able to get back into the game, but I still lost,” Vandersall said.
After that match, her desire for success left an emptiness in her stomach that demanded to be filled.
Sophomore year arrived and confirmed she was just scratching the surface of her capabilities. She improved her backhand, getting her the opportunity to play varsity singles and doubles. After another successful season full of learning and new experiences, Vandersall returned to the regional meet in the No. 3 slot for the Mustangs. Now used to the pressure of battling alone, Vandersall gave everything she had. Through moments of sheer intensity and doubt she persevered to win the match. Excitement ensued, but even this great accomplishment didn’t quite satisfy her hunger for achievement.
Four years later, the inexperienced girl who fell in love with the game continues to pursue greatness on the court. In singles, Vandersall’s record is 8-0. After the graduation of her sister, Vandersall got partnered with fellow senior Grace Pelley for this season.
“I really enjoy playing with Grace,” Vandersall said.
The pair is 7-0. After last season’s success, Vandersall’s spirits are high and set on returning to the state tennis tournament.
On and off the court, Vandersall is a force to be reckoned with. Off the court, she enjoys spending time with her family and making music with her sister. She is called by the outdoors and takes time to spread love and compassion everywhere she goes. Outside of athletics and academics, she attends bible study and youth group to enhance her growing connection with God and His creation.
“Oh, I’m also learning how to play the harmonica,” Vandersall said.
Aside from the tennis courts she can also be found in the gym practicing her additional athletic endeavor: volleyball. Mount Vernon’s volleyball program has a long history of making it to the state tournament. With lots of hard work, the team continued this valued tradition and appeared at the tournament every year of Vandersall’s career. After years of competing in such high intensity games, she developed an incredible sense of leadership that is apparent even to those watching.
In the 2016 volleyball season, Vandersall was recognized for being second-team all state, second-team all conference and academic all conference. She plans to play volleyball at Emmaus Bible College in the fall. Her dedication and immense love for the game is what makes her such a reliable teammate and athlete.
One defining moment in Vandersall’s quest for success was the summer she attended an FCA athletic camp for tennis. After a week at the camp, Vandersall decided to return again next year for volleyball. She was inspired by the connection that camp made between her love of athletics and God to get better in all aspects of her athletic pursuits. Being in the presence of other great athletes sparked her competitive nature and pushed her to her limits.
At the camp, Vandersall learned several key lessons about the sport and life that will stay with her forever.
“I was able to really turn my life around and remember what was important, and I think that really showed me how great God is and what he can do,” Vandersall said.
From that point on she promised to work her absolute hardest to glorify God every time she stepped on the court.
“My favorite part about playing sports is when I’m in a really intense match and I question whether or not I can go on, but then praying and somehow finding the strength to finish,” she said. “Afterward when I look back I realize I wouldn’t have been able to do it without God.”