By Teddy Rydquist
Leader Staff Writer
Two of the most instrumental figures in the history of Oxford Wildcat tennis crossed paths in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (GLIAC) during the April 9 women’s matchup between the Michigan Tech Huskies and Saginaw Valley State Cardinals at the Greater Midland Tennis Center.
In his first season at the helm, Saginaw Valley is coached by Ryan Ruzziconi, who doubles as the coach of Oxford’s boys’ program, the only head coach Wildcat tennis has known in their five-year history.
On the Michigan Tech side, sophomore Lauren Opalewski, a 2019 Oxford High School graduate, represented the Huskies in No. 1 doubles and No. 3 singles.
After helping lead the Wildcats’ girls’ team to consecutive Oakland Activities Association (OAA) Blue Division titles as a freshman and sophomore, Opalewski made the decision to test her skills against the boys, the only young woman to attempt such a jump in Oxford history.
Though Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) boys’ tennis is a fall sport and girls’ a spring, Opalewski was not permitted to participate in both, as student-athletes are limited to one season per sport in an academic year.
This decision, which was driven by Opalewski’s desire to face the strongest competition possible and showcase her abilities for college coaches, ended up playing out perfectly. Earning All-State, All-OAA, and Team Most Valuable Player honors, she posted a 27-7 record in boys’ No. 1 singles, in addition to being a four-year Scholar Athlete Award recipient.
Factoring in her time on the girls’ side, Opalewski graduated with a 55-12 record in singles play.
“Her senior year, she was the best player in conference with the boys, she won the conference tournament,” Ruzziconi recalled.
“Besides talent, she always had that drive and desire and ambition that you’re looking for, that just propelled her. She would outwork people and she’s a very smart tennis player, she could break down her opponent, know what her opponent’s doing from a strategic standpoint, and counter that.
“Those two traits alone, the hard work and really high tennis IQ, translate really well to college tennis.”
Utilizing this talent and work ethic, Opalewski has continued her success at the collegiate level, garnering All-GLIAC Honorable Mention as a freshman. Paired with classmate Dominika Bobik, who hails from Wroclaw, Poland, the duo tallied an 18-4 mark in doubles play in 2019-20.
During the April 9 meeting, which Michigan Tech won, 5-2, Bobik and Opalewski picked up a 6-0 win in No. 1 doubles and the Oxford product added a victory in No. 3 singles, dispatching fellow sophomore Chelsea Dzenga, 6-3, 6-1.
Speaking to Opalewski on April 16, it was clear she values the role Ruzziconi played in helping her reach this point in her career.
“I started really focusing on wanting to play college tennis and I felt like there was a lot more competition on the boys’ side for me, especially to develop as a player because I know a lot of people struggle with the transition from junior tennis to college-level tennis,” she shared.
“I initially had a meeting with Ryan (Ruzziconi), and he was super supportive from the beginning, which I appreciate more than more than I can say. I ended up making the decision to move to the boys’ team and everybody was pretty much welcoming with open arms, so it was an easy transition, and I made some lasting friendships on the team.
“Overall, the way that I competed, I was very happy about it, for sure. I couldn’t have done it without the support of the guys on the team, my family, and Ryan, as well. He was one of the best coaches I could’ve had in high school, for sure.
“Last year, my freshman year of college, I went 6-2 in conference play with an overall record of, I think, 9-8, so it was a good freshman year for me. I had to fight off the nerves a little bit in the beginning, but at the end, I really came out strong, and I think Coach Ryan helped me the most out of anybody, getting me mentally prepared and focused for college play because, obviously, he’s been exposed to a lot of college-style play.”
While they are now competing for different GLIAC schools, Ruzziconi and Opalewski have stayed in contact since her graduation and the coach has maintained relationships with her parents, Greg and Susan, as well.
“It was funny, when she came in, we were already there,” Ruzziconi shared of the April 9 match.
“We kind of both spotted each other and smiled, I think we were both nervous, you know? It felt odd seeing her in a different uniform than the one I had on. We talked for a little bit before the match started and once things got going, I kind of stayed away from her court a little bit. Just because I figured it might make her nervous and two, it’s hard not to root for her.
“Once the matches were all over, her and I talked, we spent some time on the court and talked, took some pictures, went and talked with her and her parents for a while, it was nice to reconnect and reminisce for a while and talk about how our seasons are going, it was really cool.”
As of April 17, Opalewski and Michigan Tech were tied with the Purdue Northwest Pride for fifth in the GLIAC standings at 3-8 (3-4), while Ruzziconi and SVSU were eighth at 4-10 (2-6). The GLIAC Women’s Tennis Tournament, which will be held at the Greater Midland Tennis Center and features the top-eight teams, will begin on Friday at 2:30 p.m.
The winner of the tournament receives an automatic bid to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division II Women’s Tennis Tournament, slated for a May 19 start at the Surprise (Arizona) Tennis & Racquet Complex.
Opalewski, who is majoring in Chemical Engineering, plans to complete an internship for Consumers Energy this summer and, once her undergraduate degree is finished, plans to take advantage of the NCAA granting an additional year of eligibility for all student-athletes by pursuing a master’s degree in Business Administration.
By Teddy Rydquist