Astrid Cardenas could barely eat, let alone work on her tennis skills in the weeks leading up to the start of her senior year at Joplin High School.
A returning state-qualifier, Cardenas was unable to train for eight weeks this past summer after an unfortunate accident led to a necessary surgery and a lengthy recovery.
“I got hit in the face with a baseball and it broke my jaw in two places,” Cardenas explained. “The surgery was probably the toughest part. I barely ate because my mouth was wired shut. I wasn’t able to play tennis for two months. It was terrible. I wanted to play so bad. It was really rough.
“I knew my peers were out there playing tennis and I couldn’t be out there,” Cardenas continued. “I was stuck at home. Two months is a long time to not play or train. It’s my senior year and I wanted to do really well this year.”
Cardenas wasn’t the only member of the JHS tennis team hampered by an early-season injury.
Emma Watts was plagued by back problems at the beginning of her junior season.
“It was a problem with my joints,” Watts said. “I had a whole bunch of pinched nerves in my lumbar area. It took me a lot of work to get back to where I could play again. It was very frustrating because I just wanted to start off the season healthy. I did physical therapy and I still do a lot of stretches and exercises.
“I’m close to 100 percent now,” Watts added. “I’ve been focused on getting healthy before districts and state. That’s what was driving me.”
With the team’s top two performers limited by those early-season difficulties, a successful fall campaign wasn’t exactly a given.
But with hard work and dedication, Cardenas and Watts have overcome their respective injuries and put together a stellar season.
The Joplin duo are set to make their second straight appearance at the MSHSAA Girls Tennis Championships.
Ahead of Thursday’s opening round of the state tennis tournament, Cardenas and Watts hold a record of 26-1 in doubles matches.
In a season to remember, the JHS pair captured the No. 1 doubles crown at the Central Ozark Conference tournament for a second straight season and placed second at the district tournament, suffering their lone loss of the fall to a Lee’s Summit West squad that is one of the favorites to win a state title.
Now, Cardenas and Watts are set to begin competition at the Class 3 state tournament on Thursday morning at the Cooper Tennis Complex in Springfield.
“It’s my senior year and I really want to medal this year,” said Cardenas, who also qualified for state in singles as a sophomore. “Communication and teamwork are the keys to success for us. We have a really good dynamic. And it’s my last tournament ever, so I just want to have fun.”
The Eagles were the Joplin area’s top doubles team for the second straight season.
In 2020, Cardenas and Watts captured a COC championship at No. 1 doubles, took second place at the district tournament and then advanced to the consolation quarterfinals of the state tournament.
After last year’s trip to state, the Eagles are well aware of what to expect this time around.
“It was very exciting for us,” Watts said of competing at last year’s event. “I was just so excited to play doubles with my best friend and I was just excited to get that experience. It opened our eyes. This year, we really want to medal. We know what to expect this year. That’s going to be key for us.”
Last year’s experience left the Eagles wanting more, too.
“If they could finish the season on the medal stand that would be something the coaching staff and the girls would be really proud of,” Joplin coach Jeff Williams said. “It’s a possibility for them.”
In Thursday’s opening round, the Eagles will take on St. Joseph Academy’s Elizabeth Choate and Isabella Hong.
“The goal is to do better than last time,” JHS assistant coach Richard Perry said. “They want to be medalists, and with how they’ve been playing, I think that’s very achievable. They need to be ready for really tough competition. Class 3 is getting tougher every single year.”
Regardless of what happens on the court in Springfield, the Eagles will end the season alongside the state’s best.
That’s something the pair can feel good about, especially considering the early-season injuries both players were forced to overcome.
“Astrid and I have both worked really hard for this,” Watts said. “Now we want to make it as far as we can.”