“I never thought I’d be friends with a Batavia Bulldog,” Krista Panko of Geneva says about Augustana College tennis teammate Kim Sawyer. “I always tease her that I get to call her a Viking forever. … She’s a Viking now.”
It turns out Sawyer makes a really good Viking. The junior recently helped Augustana to a second-place finish in the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin (CCIW) tournament by winning the No. 1 singles championship, becoming the conference player of the year in the process.
“It was really exciting,” Sawyer said. “My goal this year was to beat [the No. 1 Wheaton [College player] and try to win the championship. Just to have that accomplishment was really great.”
Victories for the Vikings against the Thunder have been hard to come by. The Thunder have won eight straight league titles. But at this year’s conference tournament, Augustana broke through by winning a pair of championships. In addition to Sawyer’s victory at No. 1 singles, Panko won the title at No. 3 singles, avenging a dual-meet loss to her Wheaton opponent in the title match.
“I was extremely pleased,” Panko said. “Usually, Wheaton pretty much sweeps everyone across the board. Kim and I both beating Wheaton was a big thing for us.”
Panko’s play in the tournament earned her accolades as the CCIW Championship MVP.
The success of Sawyer and Panko has given the Vikings plenty of reason to be optimistic about the spring season, when they could play Wheaton again for a chance to advance to the NCAA Division III national championships.
“Until this year, we were never really that close” to beating Wheaton, Sawyer said. “This year when we played against them we won two matches and some other matches were close. … I think we could win quite a few matches and maybe win.”
During the fall season, Sawyer was twice named CCIW Player of the Week. Panko, a senior, also earned the honor once.
“That was real exciting,” Panko said. “I actually didn’t hear about it until a couple days later.”
A member of the Augustana swim team saw the notice on the Augustana website and informed Panko.
Panko has a career singles record of 57-45 at Augustana. She also plays doubles, teaming this year with senior Meghan Wethington to go 12-4 on the season, including a second-place finish in the league tournament at No. 3 doubles. Panko has 62 career doubles wins at Augustana, ranking eighth all-time at the school.
Sawyer went 15-2 in singles play during the fall season to run her career record to 71-16. That’s a winning percentage of .816, the best in school history.
Sawyer attributed her fall success to off-season conditioning.
“I think working on my endurance [was key],” Sawyer said. “I did a lot of running this summer and that helped a lot.”
Sawyer and freshman Aileen MacDonald teamed to finish third at No. 1 doubles in the league tournament. Sawyer and MacDonald went 10-5 this fall, giving Sawyer 47 career doubles wins.
“She’s been great competition for everyone on our team,” Panko said of Sawyer. “She’s almost been a role model for me. … She’s incredible. She’s such an outstanding player. I’ve really looked up to her as a player. We kind of strive to be as good of a player as Kim is.”
Both Sawyer and Panko were attracted to Augustana by the beauty of the campus.
“The campus was really pretty,” Sawyer said. “That was one of the big factors in my decision.”
Sawyer, who also considered Central College (Iowa), Carthage, and Hope (Mich.), says she also liked all the people she met on a campus visit, when she stayed with Panko.
“I was really excited to find out she was coming to visit,” Panko said. “We had never gotten to know each other [in high school]. … It was cool. We had a lot of stuff in common.”
Somehow, the two never faced each other on the court in high school.
“I always knew who she was and knew she was a really good player,” Sawyer said.
The two quickly developed a friendship that includes the occasional good-natured ribbing about where they went to high school.
“We still joke about the Geneva tennis rivalry and the football game and stuff,” Panko said “We’ve been able to drive back and forth [between home and campus] together and play together over the summer. … We have a great time. It’s been fun.”
• Dennis D. Jacobs writes the weekly On Campus column for the Kane County Chronicle. To submit information on local athletes competing in college, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.