Olympic Sports

How Boomer Saia & women’s tennis became one of the best stories in Iowa State history

AMES — Before Boomer Saia arrived at Iowa State, the women’s tennis program did not have a single season with more than two conference wins.

Now, in its 50th year – and fifth season of the Saia era – Iowa State tennis will host the opening two rounds of the NCAA Tournament as the No. 11 overall seed in the country this weekend.

“If I would have told our administration five years ago that in year five we’re going to host the NCAA Tournament, I would have probably gotten laughed out of the room by many (people), even my peers,” Saia said.

The turnaround includes doubling the program’s number of all-conference players, a semifinal appearance at the indoor national tournament, and the program’s best-ever Big 12 record at 7-2.

That’s all happened in the past five years, but it started in Lawrence, where Saia used to wear Jayhawk colors.

Saia began his coaching career on a volunteer basis, in a role he remained in for five seasons from 2010-2014. Going into his fifth year at Kansas, a new coach was hired to take the reigns of the KU program. Saia didn’t know if he would even be retained as a volunteer.

The newly hired Todd Chapman decided to keep Saia on staff, and the two remain friends today. Saia learned under Chapman, whose team has been to five NCAA Tournaments and won the Big 12 in 2019.

From there, he took assistant coaching jobs at Oklahoma, Vanderbilt and lastly at Texas Tech, where he planned on staying for a while.

Then, the Iowa State job opened up.

“I’ve got a lot of Big 12 blood,” Saia said. “I’ve been at Kansas, OU and Texas Tech, so I was very familiar with the conference. I grew up in Kansas, so I was kind of again a Big 12 guy myself. I always knew of Iowa State and felt like there was a lot of untapped potential here. I felt like we could be a program to be reckoned with.”

Saia arrived at his interview with a detailed plan, printed out into a sizeable packet. He can’t remember every detail about it, but it didn’t include making it to a No. 11 overall seed in year five.

“It was probably a detailed plan of how we’re going to get this program on the right path,” Saia said. “From a recruiting aspect, from a timeline – like, I wanted to be very aggressive and not just (say) ‘this is going to be a five or ten-year process.’ Let’s roll up our sleeves and chase it right now.”

“In there, I might have had ‘make the (NCAA) tournament in year three,’ and sure enough it worked out really well,” Saia added.

With the new Bruce McKee Indoor Tennis Complex having been completed in the previous year, the gas pedal was pushed to the floor.

Saia became the new head coach and began his path on the recruiting trail.

“I think back (to that year) and we got a lot of no’s early on in the recruiting process, but man, we got the right yes’s,” Saia said.

Saia faced the limitations that an older Iowa State fan is used to hearing about. It’s colder in Ames than it is in Florida or other warm-climate states. Iowa State has literally no history to prove that its program could be successful, let alone make the tournament. That goes without the battle of finding ways to bring international talents to Iowa.

“We’re not in the most attractive geographical location,” Saia said. “So, sometimes you speak to recruits and you use the word ‘Iowa,’ and it can probably scare some people off. I think we’ve had a lot of success of when people get here and they actually see the people, and Ames, and the campus – they’re really wide-eyed. The key is probably getting people on campus as much as anything.”

Those limitations didn’t hinder Saia – he’s built his roster this season with all eight players being natives of countries outside North America.

“Our philosophy when we stepped in here is, no rock will be unturned and we will look all over the country, whether domestic or internationally, for the best players that can represent our program and compete for Big 12 titles.”

In 2018 – Saia’s first year at the helm – Iowa State was 5-10 through its first 15 matches.

In the final weekend of the regular season, it battled No. 5 Texas to a narrow, 3-4 defeat before turning around and beating Baylor for the first time in program history.

“Man, that built a lot of momentum,” Saia said. “These kids deserved it, they worked for that moment. It was a proud moment. It definitely helps, right, you can sell that in the recruiting process, but more so just for the belief of our kids on that team – that was a big step. The belief is probably the hardest thing to battle and instill in kids I would say.”

Before that, Iowa State tennis didn’t have a single win against a Big 12 Conference foe from the state of Texas.

It just hadn’t been a competitive program.

In 2021, Iowa State got off to a hot start, going 7-0 to open the season.

The team finished 4-4 in the Big 12, earning a .500 mark in conference play for the first time in school history, and knocking off No. 24 South Carolina in its first trip to the NCAA Tournament.

“That was another step that you had to take, and I find myself all of the time talking so much in coach-speak,” Saia said. “You hear ‘the process,’ or ‘the fundamentals’ or ‘you have to take these steps,’ but there is so much truth and I can see why there are these lingo words. If you buy in, and you think that way, and you progress that way as a team, there’s so much validity to it. Yeah, that was a huge step, getting four wins in this conference nowadays… that’s no easy task.”

Fast forward to 2023, a year where Saia received his second Big 12 Coach of the Year award in three seasons and the Cyclones are solidified as a top 15 team.

But, how are they doing it?

“We put a high premium on doubles,” Saia said. “I always put it in football terms, because my dad always told me, ‘If you want to get good, get better at special teams right away.'”

In the NCAA, team matches start off with three matches of doubles, with the school that has more wins in the best-of-3 series earning a 1-0 lead before singles start.

In 23 matches this season, Iowa State has earned the double’s point 18 times.

“We play a very aggressive brand of doubles, but we instilled those principles, the system and technique in our style right from the first year,” Saia said. “Now, I think you have a senior-led team that knows each other and knows exactly how to play proper doubles. I think we’re reaping the fruits of our labor.”

Saia wants those watching Iowa State to know – they will attack in doubles.

“We will be the aggressor. Our big saying is ‘Go make something good happen, don’t wait for something bad to happen.'”

The Cyclones are finding success in a less traditional way, too.

There isn’t the one-star player that is carrying the rest of the team – it’s almost as rounded as it can get.

Thasaporn Naklo has a 10-8 singles record as Iowa State’s No. 1 option, but holds six wins over ranked opponents and earned her second invite to the NCAA Tournament.

The Cyclones’ No. 2 and No. 3 players – Ange Oby Kajuru and Miska Kadleckova – combined to finish 33-8 on the season, and Kadleckova recorded the most ranked wins of any player on the roster during the regular season.

“I think we are a true team,” Saia said. “Whether that’s our doubles – or (in singles) we don’t have like a top-ranked No. 1 or No. 2 player in the country. We have really, really good players. I think all of our players have the potential to be in the top 125 in the rankings, and that’s the kind of level you need across the board… We have some really good records at certain spots, but you look down through the whole season and there’s been different people stepping up in each match and that’s the coolest thing to see as a coach.”

That recipe and roster makeup provided Iowa State with a run that had everyone’s eyes on the program back in January and February before conference play had started.

Iowa State traveled to Miami to play in the ITA Kickoff – a smaller event similar to that of a college basketball Thanksgiving tournament. The Cyclones took home back-to-back 4-3 wins against No. 18 UCLA and No. 10 Miami.

“Wow,” Saia said when looking back on the 2023 season. “Every year is different and ideally you’re at your best when you have a bunch of seniors and juniors. We came out of the gates and lost a tough match to Auburn, and I was really curious to see how they respond. (We went) to Miami and you beat UCLA – a storied program. Then you play Miami, who might have 10 losses in the last 10 years at home – it’s a snake pit. Nobody goes in there and wins.”

The weekend earned Iowa State a spot in the ITA National Indoors championship, comprised of some of the top programs in the country.

It’s likened to a mid-year national championship tournament.

“Our big (message to the team) was are you just happy making that tournament or do you want to put something together and do you believe we can make a run?”

The Cyclones took down No. 9 Vanderbilt and No. 1 Texas before losing in the semifinals to No. 5 Georgia.

“Beating Vanderbilt and No. 1 Texas there, and have a great, great battle with Georgia in the semis,” Saia said. “Wow, what a run. We just did a really great job riding that momentum and showing up in each match.”

Although Saia and the team take every victory and defeat in stride, the moments pieced together become stepping stones to larger and larger goals.

The team’s motto is ‘one percent better.’

“I think a lot of people might have looked at this job and saw the limitations,” Saia said. “I think your vision has to be stronger than some of the limitations, but you win with people. If you get the right people in here, whether its (associate head coach) Kenna Kilgo or (volunteer coach) Colt Tegtmeier, or obviously the players – that’s where the winning is really done.”

The Cyclones ended their regular season by making the semifinals of the Big 12 Tournament for the second time in program history.

“We really wanted – and we were really excited for the opportunity at a rematch with Oklahoma – but we came up a little short against a really good program. What a battle. It was a four-hour match. We finished at 11:00 p.m. and I was really proud of our group. My message to them was, ‘I know it didn’t feel like it, but we did take a really big step in that.'”

Iowa State will square off with Drake (who won its conference tournament) in the first round of the NCAAs on Friday (2:00 p.m. at Ames High School). A win would put the Cyclones into the second round with a Saturday time slot at 1:00 p.m.

Whether Iowa State wins or gets bounced this weekend, there won’t be any deterrent to what Saia has done in five years.

“I think there is no place like Iowa State, right? When you come in and then you build something really special, nothing like that happens. There is (pride in building a program). There is. You stake your career and come into a non-traditional, non-blue blood program and now you’re beating UCLA’s. You’re beating Texas’. This is kind of (my) baby. This is a special place.”

Saia is full of pride for Ames and even used the city’s name as one of his son’s middle names.

If he has it his way, he’ll be in Ames for a long time, and Iowa State fans should feel refreshed knowing so.

“I envision a long, long career. I don’t see myself anywhere else, and there’s so many great things, with CyTown and we’ve got the (facility) and this is really something that you can build upon and make. I think we were missing a few things and now we’ve put those pieces together and this has the potential to be a long-lasting career for me.

“My family and I are so appreciative to Iowa State for this opportunity – it’s been special, man.”