April 24, 2012
Montana women's tennis coach Steve Ascher announced this week that Mackenzie Rozell of Springfield, Mo., has signed a National Letter of Intent and will join the Grizzlies as a freshman in the fall.
Rozell, currently a senior at Springfield's Kickapoo High, will join a team that is coming off a program-best second-place finish at last weekend's Big Sky Conference tournament and will be returning all six players who competed in singles against Northern Arizona in the semifinals and Sacramento State in the championship match.
"I was mainly looking for a great coach and a great group of girls at a Division I program," Rozell says about her decision. "I knew from the first time that I talked to Coach Ascher that the University of Montana was the place for me.
"He recruits not only great tennis players but great people as well, and that was exactly what I was looking for. After I met Coach Ascher and the girls on the team, I was 100 percent set and knew I wanted to be a Grizzly."
Her signing fulfills both a dream of playing Division I tennis and completes a long road back to health for Rozell, who two years ago faced an uncertain tennis future.
Rozell teamed up with her older sister Carlee to win the Missouri Class 2 state doubles title in the fall of 2009. Shortly after the state tournament she was diagnosed with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, a condition that causes pinched nerves in the shoulder and was responsible for the chronic pain -- and at times near paralysis -- she experienced in her right arm.
It required invasive surgery, and the rehabilitation kept Rozell out of the sport at a competitive level for nearly a year. Her USTA district ranking tumbled because of it, from No. 16 to 243.
Rozell was back to 100 percent by her junior year, and she raced up the Missouri Valley District rankings. She ultimately played her way back into the top 20.
"I had to work twice as hard to be able to get to where I wanted to be, but I know now that I can do anything with determination, perseverance, faith and self-discipline," she says.
"I am used to overcoming adversity and beating the odds, so if I'm faced with a challenge in the future, I'll never give up."
Because she missed an important window in the recruiting process while she was sidelined, Rozell made the decision to forgo her senior season last fall with the Chiefs, who she led to a 2008 Class 2 state runner-up finish, as well as a pair of conference and district championships.
Instead she focused on regional and national tournaments that provided better competition and the opportunity to get noticed.
"I think that was an important move for Mackenzie," Ascher says. "The high school experience is nice in terms of being able to participate as part of a team within a sport that is so individualistic, but in terms of competition, you're not going to get better competition than at regional and national tournaments."
With the addition of Rozell, next year's roster will have players from Washington, California, Texas, Quebec and now Missouri.
"I'm always looking all over," Ascher says about his approach to recruiting. "I look at each region and take the top percentage from each one and start exploring to see if players are interested. If they are, we start the conversation and go from there.
"Is Montana going to be the right fit for the player? Is the player going to be the right fit for our program? It's all about doing your homework and trying to find the right questions to ask that are going to produce the information you're looking for."
Montana only loses senior Lauren Gibson to graduation off this year's team that went 14-8 during the spring duals season and finished third in the Big Sky Conference regular-season standings at 6-2.
The rest of Montana's returners were all underclassmen in 2011-12. Ashley Mackey and Maddy Murray, who will be juniors in the fall, and Pelchat, Sasha Carter and Precious Gbadamosi, who will all be sophomores, went 31-8 in Big Sky singles matches during the spring.
To that formidable squad Ascher is adding Rozell.
"One of the things that stuck out to me is that Mackenzie is a strong, athletic player who moves well," he says. "I also like the academic piece. She works hard on her academics and will be strong coming in.
"I think all those pieces add up to what we're looking for in terms of the character and work ethic that we want out of the players in our program."
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