Remembering victory: Two former Missouri tennis players recount program’s last SEC win

Missouri tennis hasn’t won an SEC match since 2017.
On April 16, 2017, the Missouri tennis team won its last SEC victory against Arkansas. The players of this year are confident they can do it again. Courtesy of Mizzou Athletics

Clare Raley remembers underestimating her competition.

No stranger to highs and lows, the Missouri tennis alumna and former five-star recruit didn’t realize the caliber of college tennis players until she stepped onto the court herself.

“I remember my freshman year coming up against teams I thought wouldn’t be as strong as we were,” Raley said. “Every match was a fight.”

Extreme peaks and valleys are all too common for Missouri tennis. At the dawn of the 2019-20 season, the Tigers are entrenched in their deepest valley yet. The program has finished the past two seasons with a combined 0-26 in SEC play.

April 16, 2017, marked Missouri’s last victory in SEC play. It defeated Alabama on the road in its final contest of the regular season.

Bea Machado Santos, a senior at the time, remembers that season well.

“At the time we had lost a couple of close ones,” Santos said. “I remember us losing against [Louisiana State University]. We had match point to win and I feel if we had beaten them — they were top 20 — we would have probably been an NCAA [Tournament] team.”

Heading towards the end of the season, Missouri was running out of chances to swing the close ones in its favor. The Tigers dropped the first match of their final two-game road trip at Auburn. Tuscaloosa was their final chance to make a late-season push.

“It was our last shot at being able to make a run at [the NCAA Tournament],” Santos said. “You never want to leave your chances of getting into the tournament at the SEC Tournament because it’s so tough.

While Santos remembers getting on the bus knowing April 16, 2017 would be Missouri’s day, Raley had doubts.

“We got down in singles and I remember looking down from court six and thinking, ‘I’m not sure if we’re going to pull this off’,” Raley said.

Raley had just secured the doubles point for Missouri, 6-3, a short time before. Nothing could faze her, not even the fact she had only played with her doubles partner, Tate Schroeder, once before that season.

“I definitely wasn’t used to playing with [Schroeder],” Raley said. “However, we were very good friends, and still are off of the court, so we already had chemistry going for us. [Schroeder] plays a really big game and I’m more of a crafty consistent player, so those two different game styles balanced out for us.”

Raley and Schroeder clinched the doubles win for Missouri, but the team had more to do if it wanted to leave Tuscaloosa in triumph.

Santos then took the court against then-No. 15 senior Erin Routliffe. In the final regular-season match of her MU career, Santos dominated Routliffe in straight sets (6-0, 7-6 (1)).

“That was a pretty good win for me as well as to anchor the team,” Santos said.

Santos’ upset win over Routliffe was the jolt of confidence the rest of the Tigers needed.

“As soon as [the team] saw me get off of the court — I think the first set was 6-0 — [we] were pretty confident we could get it done.”

Down 3-2 though, Missouri found itself one point from another heartbreaking SEC loss.

Then-junior Amina Ismail defeated her opponent in the ensuing set, knotting up the match at 3-3 heading into the final set. Missouri’s star freshman, Mackenzy Middlebrooks, would decide the fate of the afternoon.

Trailing in her third set against Smith Hinton, optimism began to wane.

“If there's anyone we would want out there [in that moment], it would be [Mackenzy],” Raley said.

Middlebrooks lasered an ace on the deuce side out wide, stealing a win from the Crimson Tide, 4-3.

Raley remembers bounding onto the court with her teammates, struggling to vault a much taller Middlebrooks in the air after her match-clinching ace.

“There was a gap in the fence where my teammate Amina [Ismail] and I could run straight through without having to go around. We got to her first and picked her up and hugged her and we were both a lot shorter than her.” Raley said.

Though Missouri’s 2016-17 season would end with a 4-1 loss in the opening round of the SEC Tournament to Ole Miss, Santos remembers the end of her time with the Tigers, specifically her last win against Alabama, fondly. Following the Alabama game, she was optimistic about the future.

“We were hopeful we could win a couple of those and get into the [NCAA] Tournament,” Santos said. “I remember that was an awesome feeling.”

Santos fell in the first round of the NCAA Doubles Tournament to California’s top duo. Santos and her partner, Amina Ismail, were the first Tiger pairing to reach the tournament since 2003.

“We had gigantic pride in being Mizzou Tigers,” Santos said. “We wanted to leave it all out there and guide our freshmen for years to come.”

Some of those freshmen Santos is referring to, now seniors, are no longer with Missouri’s program. Both Middlebrooks and Schroeder transferred to Clemson following two seasons without an SEC win for the Tigers.

Despite it all, Raley has high hopes for this year’s squad.

“The positive thing about the team this year is that it is a really great group of girls: they're really hard-working ...They're resilient,” Raley said. “They’ll definitely bounce back from what turned out to be a tough season for them last year.”

Some of Raley’s most cherished moments from her time on the team include blasting music in the locker room and bus ride dance parties. She knows the leaders of the 2019-2020 team will help create similar memories for the younger girls.

Clare Raley and Bea Machado Santos remember the thrill of victory.

Both believe it is time for the spark of an SEC win to reignite the Missouri tennis locker room. Both know this team has what it takes to get back in the win column.

“I know myself and a couple of other alums are really looking forward to seeing the team go back to where we left it and even better,” Santos said. “There’s a lot of ground to cover and a lot of work to be done at Missouri tennis.”

Edited by Emily Leiker | eleiker@themaneater.com

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