It took Northern Iowa women’s tennis a chance find and a bounced email to get their newest number one player 4,642 miles from Riga, Latvia to Cedar Falls.
Located on the Baltic coast, Riga is the country’s largest city and home to UNI freshman Darta Dalecka.
“Having to replace at least three (players) from last year made me recruit a lot,” said UNI head coach Chris Sagers. “It’s a lot of videos to watch…just going from one video to another…and I stumbled across Darta.”
After watching their 7:46 recruitment video, which showed Dalecka’s play in all situations and areas of the pitch, Sagers said he was interested and began researching beyond the video.
“I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, looks pretty good, let me see her ranking, let me see how she’s doing,’” Sagers said. “And she was very well.”
Sagers’ next step was to send the young Latvian ace an initial email expressing UNI’s interest, but his email was bounced back to him.
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“I just think maybe the account is bad, maybe she’s already found a school,” Sagers said.
After double-checking the email address, Sagers realized he had originally misspelled it. So he sent another message and he listened back.
In Latvia, Dalecka said she had heard about a number of universities, but after not receiving any opportunities that ticked all her boxes, she considered taking a gap year.
“I received many offers from many universities, but these offers did not satisfy me,” Dalecka said. “So I thought about a gap year.”
She said she wanted the opportunity to maximize her talents on the tennis court and in the classroom across the United States.
“My goal was to find the best possible university for tennis and study,” said Dalecka. “By posting this video, I wanted to find the right university in the US.”
According to Dalecka, the right university called – or emailed – in March 2021.
“I got this offer and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s actually one of the best deals I’ve got,’” Dalecka said. “I reached out to the coach … we started talking and now here I am.”
Her conversations with Coach Sagers made all the difference when she decided to attend UNI. Dalecka said she appreciated the approach Sagers brought to their discussions compared to the other coaches they recruited.
Sagers said he focused on the size of the school, the care given to the students and the community surrounding UNI when recruiting Dalecka and other international players.
“What I’m trying to sell about UNI is that it’s a school that really cares about its students,” Sagers said. “It’s a sports program that really wants its students to excel not only on the quarter field but also in the classroom. You will get a lot of support from everyone at school, but also from the community.”
UNI’s offers matched Daļecka’s wish list. The Panther’s new ace added that the school’s facilities and academics were the biggest things that stood out to her.
“The academics were really good,” said Daļecka. “I feel it here. The facilities in general, I saw that we have outdoor tennis courts and also indoor tennis courts, training rooms, weight rooms – all good for athletes.”
With the decision to accept UNI’s offer, a long-awaited goal has been achieved. Since middle school, Dalecka has wanted to combine her beloved sport and her studies beyond high school.
“I want to combine tennis and academics,” said Dalecka. “If I stayed in my home country of Latvia, that wouldn’t be possible… If you get this full scholarship here, then everything is covered and you can just get an education and practice your favorite sport at the same time.”
During her freshman semester at UNI, during the limited 2021 fall season, Sagers said he noticed her potential to play near the top of the Panthers’ lineup.
“I could tell Darta would really, really contribute at the highest level,” Sagers said.
After a battle between last season’s top player, junior Emma Carr, newcomer Lorena Cardoso and Dalecka, the Latvian emerged as number one on the UNI lineup.
In tennis, the number one ranked player competes in singles against the best player on the opposing team. This means that week in and week out Daļecka knows she’ll be up against the best the opposition has to offer.
“When you play first place, all the players you play against are good,” said Daļecka. “They won’t be any worse than you… You always have to reckon with the fact that it’s going to be difficult to play against opponents.”
However, Daļecka said the challenge of playing at the top boosted her confidence.
“Since I’ve been playing first in the team, it has generally given me more confidence,” said Daļecka. “I feel more confident on and off the pitch.”
Sagers explained the challenge and what Daļecka’s ability to play at this point as a freshman says about her.
“Some of these players are amazing,” Sagers said. “The level of competition in one place…is unbelievable…It tells me they don’t shy away from a challenge.”
As number one in UNI’s lineup, Dalecka is posting a record of 5-4 and was named Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Week in early March.
However, Dalecka said what motivates her most is not the individual achievements but her team-mates at UNI.
“I love competing on the pitch, even more than before,” said Dalecka. “When you have the team and the coach and they want you to win, it feels really special.”