The Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association (MIAA) conference season has just started for Chichester-born tennis player Molly Worden.
She is in the third year of her tennis scholarship at Northeastern State University (NSU) in Oklahoma.
Such scholarships are demanding and students have to juggle playing and training with their academic studies.
Worden said: “The days are long when you are a college athlete, starting at 6am with fitness work, then going to classes between 8am and 1pm before practising all afternoon and then more college work.
“And there’s the travelling – we drove nine hours the other week for a match in Texas. The last thing you want to do when you get back some days is homework but quite honestly I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love the daily grind.”
The 20-year-old, whose family lives in Fishbourne, made it to the semi-finals of the nationals in Surprise, Arizona in the autumn and as a result Worden and partner Valeriia Efimenko were ranked No4 doubles pair in America.
“Our nationals doubles achievement was really unexpected to be honest,” she said. “But it was a great opportunity to test ourselves against the best pairs in the country and maybe we will be able to build on it.”
In February, Worden’s RiverHawks team took on strong National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) division one programmes at universities in Arkansas, Texas and Mississippi in a tough pre-season schedule. She won eight singles contests out of nine and came into the regular tennis season on the back of seven straight singles wins.
Competitive tennis matches between American universities involve three doubles and six singles matches and Worden’s new coach has moved her up the singles order from No3 to No1.
She said: “I was anxious at first, of course, to play No1 singles. I think everyone doubts their ability when put in those situations. I didn’t want to let my team down, but I went 8-1 in win-losses in pre-season and we’ve won our first four MIAA matches. I’m happy with how I’m performing and I’m dealing with the pressure really well.”
Worden has beaten some tough opponents in this run. “I came through a couple of close third set tie-breakers in pre-season.
“There’s nothing better than winning a battle match for your team and they’re standing there cheering for you.”
She puts her recent form down to mental toughness. “I try to have a tight mental focus when I get on court. I keep my head down and don’t let anything distract me to take my focus away from every ball and every point.”
Since February, Worden’s achievements have been recognised with two MIAA Athlete of the Week honours and two NSU Athlete of the Week accolades.
Coach Parker, who started working with the team in January, has promoted Worden to team captain. She’s adapted well.
“For some strange reason the leadership role has come naturally to me. I don’t know where this comes from but I want to help and encourage my team-mates.
“For me this is a team sport and it’s one of the biggest things in my life, so the responsibility is an honour.”
Worden has clearly gelled with her new coach. “He’s really focused on developing us as players and building a happy, hard-working environment.”
The RiverHawks season began with away wins to universities in Nebraska and Kansas. They next beat Lindenwood, Southwest Baptist University and University of Central Oklahoma in their home-openers.
Further MIAA conference matches follow before the Championships and post-season NCAA finals at the end of May that feature the best teams from all over America.
In her time at Northeastern State, Worden’s team have won two conference championships and advanced to the last 16 of the NCAAs both years.
Worden added: “I’m looking forward to having a successful season. Hopefully we’ll get some good results as a team. We’ve started well but I think our conference has improved this year, a couple of programmes have picked up some good new players.”
You can follow Worden’s RiverHawks tennis team at http://goriverhawksgo.com/index.aspx?path=wten
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