Four years. Senior Elizabeth Barnickel waited four years before reaching the 6A Kansas State championship match in tennis.
Now the time had come. She was playing in the finals — not the semifinals, not the quarter finals. The finals.
Four hours. She waited four hours to play. To play the game she had been playing since she was three. To play the match that had just slipped her grasp in her freshman, sophomore and junior years. To play in her final competition for Shawnee Mission East.
Hours of waiting might scare some people. Its too much time to think about the coming match, too much time to scrutinize every detail. But Elizabeth took the opposite approach.
“I wasn’t nervous in my final match,” Elizabeth said. “I wasn’t even nervous before it. I’m like just another match. Just another practice match or whatever. I just went out and did it.”
Elizabeth’s tennis career started with her father feeding her tennis balls in the basement at three years old.
“She’d try to hit ‘em,” father and tennis coach Ted Barnickel said. “I’d say she broke a few light bulbs.”
At 10, with her father as her coach, Elizabeth began playing in competitive tournaments. She started out playing tournaments in the Kansas City area, but then moved on to the Missouri Valley, which is Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Missouri and part of Illinois. Now she plays in national tournaments.
As a kid, Elizabeth played all the other sports — soccer, basketball, softball — but tennis always came out on top. Her dad, Ted, had played tennis on scholarship at UMKC, so he encouraged tennis. As her dad, Ted could construct a coaching curriculum specifically for Elizabeth.
“I can see I have control of her work and eating habits,” Ted said. “And I can control her desire to play more than an outside coach would be able to do, I think.”
The father-daughter relationship helped take the duo to levels that many coach-athlete relationships could not achieve.
“Our goal was to have her play her best tennis when she was 17 years old,” Ted said. “Tennis was always her best sport. It’s the only sport she’s played since 7th grade and she’s been in the top 100 in the nation as far as rankings go.”
When Elizabeth entered the tennis scene in high school, she didn’t waste any time in working towards winning state. Freshman year she placed fifth. The two following years were maddening, as well — Elizabeth won third place at state sophomore and junior year.
But senior year was different.
This year, Elizabeth felt like the whole team was counting on her to win state. In a match about a month before state, she lost to a girl in a tournament on the Plaza.
“They didn’t want me to lose a match, I felt like the whole season,” Elizabeth said. “A lot of people were like, ‘Oh she may not win state now’.”
Shawnee Mission East tennis coach Sue Chipman took this match into consideration when assessing Elizabeth’s readiness for state. Elizabeth had beaten the girl before, so the match worried Chipman.
“You never know whether those things are going to pop up or are going to send someone totally off the track,” Chipman said. “But for her it just made her more firmly resolved that she was going to get this done.”
Before winning regionals, Elizabeth had a number four seeding. Winning regionals earned her a number one seeding at state.
Winning the most difficult region boosted Elizabeth’s confidence.
“They always put the hard schools together, so we are always competing with Blue Valley and the schools that have similar programs to ours,” Chipman said. “We call our region the mini state because rarely does someone from out of our region win the spot in any of the top 4 places in singles or doubles.”
When she arrived at state, Elizabeth knew she had already been through the hardest part. She only had to play four matches in the entire tournament. Of the four, her closest was with teammate and doubles partner Sarah Wilcox, in which she won 6-4, 6-0.
The final match was against senior Madeline Hill of Topeka-Washburn rural. Hill beat Barnickel in state her sophomore year, and then went on to win state. Last year, she beat Hill at state in three sets in semifinals. Elizabeth won in straight sets against Hill earlier in the summer.
“There’s always been some sort of rivalry between Madeline Hill and I,” Elizabeth said. “Probably like Morgan Stephis, who I played in the semi at regionals. We’re all in the same age group, and we’ve played each other so many times over the years.”
She won the championship match 6-0, 6-2.
“I played really well and I was really focused,” Elizabeth said. “She was pretty tired but she’s such a good competitor – fights for everything. I had to play well to beat her, and I kind of went straight through.”
The years of experience added up. The repetitive matches against the same people. The 6A Kansas State championship matches that Elizabeth hadn’t been able to play in. It all came together.
“I felt great for her,” Ted said. “I thought it was fantastic for her because she had worked so hard to put that together.”
For Elizabeth, the wait for a state championship had finally ended.