Sperling has persevered for Gophers

Senior tennis player is about to complete four years as a walk-on.

by Max Sanders

Grinder is a term often used to describe the fourth-line hockey player whose main purpose is to serve as an on-ice filler while the top-shift players rest before reclaiming their spots on the ice. Jackie Sperling isnâÄôt a hockey player, but through hard work and persistence, the Gophers senior womenâÄôs tennis player is wrapping up a solid four-year career in which she never received a tennis scholarship. The Mequon, Wis., native is ending her career as the GophersâÄô usual No. 3 singles starter during matches, which is remarkable considering she didnâÄôt pick up a racket to begin playing the sport until she was 14 years old. âÄúSheâÄôs been really a huge overachiever,âÄù SperlingâÄôs father Michael said. âÄúShe improved a lot. She was one of the top eight or 10 players in [Wisconsin] when she was a senior in high school, but then sheâÄôs improved every year in college. SheâÄôs gotten better and better.âÄù Despite being one of the top players in Wisconsin, Sperling received few Division I offers, with only the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay offering her tennis scholarships. After Sperling took a recruiting visit to Minnesota, head coach Tyler Thomson told her she would have a walk-on spot if she chose to enroll at the University. So Sperling came west to try continuing her tennis career. Sperling said the toughest part of playing as a walk-on has been the constant battle to get better each day, each month and each year in order to keep her spot on a team filled with scholarship athletes. âÄúItâÄôs just been like climbing uphill the whole time, just trying to improve and get up there with the other girls,âÄù she said. A solid freshman season âÄî 7-3 singles record and a 3-7 doubles record âÄî combined with SperlingâÄôs hard work kept her on the team for a sophomore season in which she had significantly more playing time. Sperling won 16 of 28 singles matches and 13 of 27 doubles matches as a sophomore. âÄúShe used to be strictly a retriever; all she would try to do is get the ball back,âÄù Thomson said. âÄúSheâÄôs gone through some progressions with that âĦ and now sheâÄôs blending everything really well.âÄù As a sophomore, Sperling clinched the teamâÄôs Big Ten tournament quarterfinal win over Purdue when she bested Alejandra Boeker in three sets after falling to Boeker in straight sets just three days earlier. Thomson frequently cites SperlingâÄôs resilience as the characteristic that makes her a special player. âÄúShe manages herself on the court brilliantly; thatâÄôs part of the reason sheâÄôs continued to improve,âÄù Thomson said. âÄúShe came in as a pretty unheralded high school player, and every year sheâÄôs improved. SheâÄôs playing the best tennis of her life right now, and a big part of it is because she doesnâÄôt get flustered by things that she canâÄôt control.âÄù Sperling did express disappointment that she was never rewarded with a scholarship despite all of her strides on the court the past four years. âÄúThere have been several opportunities for me to get one, and theyâÄôve been given to other people, and itâÄôs been disappointing,âÄù Sperling said. âÄú[But] I like it so much here that IâÄôll stay without a scholarship.âÄù Thomson said he understands SperlingâÄôs disappointment and said one of his biggest regrets is not being able to offer her a scholarship in her final year with the program. âÄúIn all honesty, if I could go back and make different decisions knowing the crystal ball, things would have been different,âÄù said Thomson, who added that he petitioned the NCAA to re-award a scholarship lost when sophomore Niltooli Wilkins quit the team. âÄú[The petition] was denied. [Sperling] is somebody that deserved it, and the scholarship went vacant all year.âÄù Without a scholarship, Sperling is still on track to graduate in May and pursue a teaching license in graduate school. Asked whether she is surprised by her success as a four-year walk-on, Sperling said her coaches and teammates helped her turn into the player she is now. âÄúI knew when I came here that I was under such a good program with so many good players that I was going to improve; playing with them and with good coaches and staff,âÄù Sperling said. âÄúI knew I was going to improve; I just didnâÄôt know how much, and this has definitely been good.âÄù