Senior Sofia Ayala has spent almost five years of her life playing college tennis. Still, it wasn't until Friday that she had the chance to do so with her father cheering her on. As the Tigers fell to two tough opponents in team play this weekend, Ayala shined in front of her dad.
Ayala and her family hail from Quito, Ecuador. She began her college tennis career at the University of Alabama, where she experienced success until breaking her ankle. Seeking a change of scenery, Sofia made the move to Missouri and spent the last three years of her career with the Tigers.
Now approaching graduation and the end of her college tennis career, Ayala reveled in the opportunity to share the experience with her father.
"I was so pumped," Ayala said. "I wanted to play good in front of him. This weekend was really, really special for me."
In the Tigers' 4-3 loss to the University of Louisville on Friday, Ayala won her singles match in straight sets. She defeated Cardinals freshman Stefanie Villajuan 6-4, 6-2. Freshman Maria Christensen and junior Mallory Weber were also victorious in singles play, but Louisville's dominance in doubles proved to be the difference.
Sunday, as Missouri lost 4-1 against No. 21 ranked Southern Methodist University, Ayala contributed in Missouri's two victories on the day. In doubles play, she and sophomore Jamie Mera racked up an 8-6 victory over SMU freshman Shahzoda Hatamova and senior Casey Kennedy.
Later in singles, Sofia was once again victorious by a score of 6-2, 6-2 against SMU senior Sophie Quist. Pumped up after every point, Ayala had her passion for the game on display for all, including her father, to see.
Coach Blake Starkey said Sofia's intensity and confidence are some of her biggest strengths.
"She plays with a lot of passion and fire," Starkey said. "You can't help but watch her and like her because she's so vocal."
As Sofia improved her personal record to 3-1 on the season, the team's mark dropped to 3-5. Despite the losing record, Starkey said his team is better for having fought through a tough non-conference schedule.
"You do everything you can to give yourself an opportunity when you get into conference," Starkey said. "I feel very firmly that if we scheduled a bunch of matches against a bunch of cupcake teams, we wouldn't have done ourselves any favors. The only chance that we have is to play really good teams like these."
Mera, who has been playing at No. 1 singles, also said playing a rigorous non-conference schedule will prepare the team for success within the Big 12.
"The truth of the matter is we're in the Big 12, and that's a tough conference," Mera said. "We know if we play hard before the Big 12, it's not going to be anything new, and we're going to be ready for it."
After playing three straight matches at home, the Tigers will visit Iowa on Saturday.
Sofia said her team would be ready to bounce back from the pair of losses.
"We don't talk about losing," Ayala said. "We just turn around and look at the positive things we got out of it."