‘This is what we envisioned for Cali when she arrived at ASU’: Leadership, Dependability of Jankowski Leading the Sun Devils in 2022
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Since arriving to the Sun Devil Women's Tennis program in 2018, Cali Jankowski has been the consummate competitor, one who teammates rally around and coaches rave about.
Now in her fourth season at ASU, she reflected on her time in Tempe and how she and the program have evolved over the last four seasons.
Although she's seen players come and go through the program, "there is a sense of familiarity with all of the staff," Jankowski said. "The players change, but the foundation of the team is what's going to stay the same. Despite seeing so many people coming and going, I knew I wanted to spend four or five years as a part of the team."
Coach Sheila McInerney is one of the main reasons for that.
McInerney has been the driving force behind ASU's women's tennis program since her hiring in 1984, having coached the program to over 550 career victories, 35 NCAA appearances and a top-40 finish nationally each season.
"I've had Sheila on my court for a majority of the season, and to have her there believing in me has been crucial to how I've been playing this year," Jankowski said. "She has a distinct coaching style, she really takes the time to know each player's game."
The senior has faced an uphill battle during her time in the program. She suffered a season-ending shoulder injury that sidelined her for all of her freshman season. It may have taken a bit longer than anticipated, but Jankowski, one of the top high school recruits to come out of California, began to come into her own when she debuted the following season.
It was that same sophomore year where Jankowski helped the Sun Devils to a 4-2 win over Northwestern that still brings a smile to her face more than two years later.
"We played the ITA kickoff at Vanderbilt and we ended up beating Northwestern. During my match, I was down, just a couple of points away from losing, but I got it together and came back to win the match," Jankowski said, grinning. "To be able to grind back after that, it was within my first four matches back after I had surgery, that was huge for me."
This year, Jankowski has undergone a transformation in herself and in her play. In this season alone, she owns a team-best 13 wins in singles matches, already more than the nine she accumulated in her sophomore and junior seasons combined.
"I feel like I've now hit my stride, I've really settled in," Jankowski said. "I know what works for me on the court now."
Her transformation goes far beyond the box score. Not only is the Sun Devil coaching staff beginning to see a spike in her confidence, but there's a certain comfort that consumes them when Jankowski's on the court.
"I'm really happy for Cali with the success she is having this year," McInerney said. "Quite frankly, this is what we envisioned for Cali when she arrived at ASU as one of the top recruits in the country. Unfortunately due to injury Cali was sidelined for her freshman year and most of her sophomore year. Last year she started to get her feet under her and this year she has been fantastic for us in both singles and doubles.
"Cali is probably our most experienced competitor and when the match is on the line the team and coaching staff have the utmost confidence in her coming through for us. It is fun to see Cali have so much success this year as she has worked hard to overcome her injury."
"Cali is having a phenomenal year for us," associate head coach Matt Langley said. "She is arguably the best player in the country at her position right now and our staff has a strong belief that Cali will come through at key moments when the team match is on the line. Cali's potential and playing ability has always been unquestionable, and it has been fun to see her grow and mature as a player throughout the season."
Jankowski and the Sun Devils have begun to hit their stride, winners of three straight that includes two top-20 upsets over No. 12 Cal and No. 17 Stanford. On April 1, Jankowski clinched a 4-3 ASU win against the Golden Bears.
For this season, Jankowski is basking in the influx of young talent on the team.
"I think that having a young team is going to be useful to the program from here on out," Jankowski said. "I think the girls will be able to harness that to continue to keep working upward."
For the spring 2022 season, the women's tennis team is made up of just seven players – dubbed the "Super Seven.". While the team is smaller in size, Jankowski described how their close connections have strengthened their bonds both on and off the court.
"Having a small team has been the best," she said. "With the team being smaller this year, I've seen that we have stronger chemistry with each other than I've seen in past seasons. Quality over quantity best describes our team relationship, I think that's really helped us."
With fewer girls on the team, the Sun Devils tap into the idea of "all playing for each other, for our school, for our coaches, rather than ourselves. Despite all of the adversity that comes with playing a sport, it's the close bonds that get us through it."
An underdog mentality, playing with a chip on their shoulder, however you want to label it, the Sun Devils relish in the idea of their small-team feel in a packed Pac-12 conference.
"The one piece of advice that [Coach McInerney] always says is, 'Everybody's good, but nobody's great,' and that's been sticking with me recently," Jankowski said. "We're playing against some big-name schools in the Pac-12, and that can be intimidating, but she reminds us that we're all in the same conference, so we must all be good enough to be there."
"We rely more on our grit, determination, and team chemistry when we're on the court," Jankowski said. "You can have all the technique in the world, but at a certain point it comes down to your belief in yourself and your game."
Through Jankowski, one of the team's three seniors and the only remaining from the 2019-20 squad, the Sun Devils are finding belief in themselves and their game heading into the most important stretch of the season.