She was always the kid, always the underclassmen looking up to the seniors for leadership.
Until it became her turn to be the one the others looked up to.
Homestead senior and No. 1 singles player Katya Mikhailenko was the only senior on the abundantly talented Highlander girls tennis team that completed an unbeaten, end-to-end run through the lightning-quick fall season with a 4-3 WIAA team-state tournament title match win over Neenah at the Nielsen Tennis Center in Madison on Oct. 22.
She took on the vast majority of the leadership weight on a team that featured five freshmen, two transfers and a host of expectations after a run through a series of early-season, high-profile tournaments made the Highlanders the team to beat this fall
That Mikhailenko's 6-2, 6-4 victory over Rocket sophomore Anna Beyer was the title clincher was only fitting. That the tears of release came pouring from her eyes afterward were hardly a surprise. They came on so suddenly and with such intensity that she could hardly get a word out to Beyer at the traditional post-match handshake at the net,
It may have been all the weight she put on herself over the course of the season lifting off her shoulders — that she had finally completed her task and completed it, helping pace the Highlanders to their sixth overall WIAA state title and their first since they ended their run of five in a row in 2012.
"Tears of joy," coach Jackie Egelhoff said.
Mikhailenko would not argue that point. She was mobbed at the net by teammates, all who also started crying happily.
"It was a good cry, a happy cry," she said with a laugh the next day. "I'll remember that match forever. Every point, the crowd would roar. It was insane. It was hard to play under that pressure. I understand now why I broke down, why I couldn't get the words out at the net. I had no idea it would mean so much. The team title is so much more important than any individual title.
"To see the team line up (with their state medals), then to see the trophy, you just can't put a price on that."
A real leader
In that moment, Mikhailenko completed her evolution from a follower into an unparalleled leader, someone Egelhoff said she "wouldn't have known what to do without" this season.
"When I was a freshmen, there were like six or seven seniors on the team, and then in my sophomore year (when she won the state doubles title with Anna Kreynin), there was only one senior," Mikhailenko said. "There really wasn't an older figure to look up to. I think I learned sophomore year how to step up and take a leadership role.
"And that really helped this year. We had three freshmen in the singles lineup (Andie Weise, Natalie Yang and Jamie Gebhardt). We sometimes called them 'The Three Blind Mice' at the beginning of the year; they were just so new. They just didn't know where to go or how to do things. I had to help get them to the right spots at football games and to get to practice on time.
"Jackie and Mike (assistant coach Stibor) did a great job putting the team together, and then they asked for my input. Mike and Jackie had about five or six sit-down meetings with us over the course of the season, reinforcing the idea that each position matters. That every week, every match it will be someone different who steps up. That it is our unity that allows us to come out on top."
Mikhailenko was the glue that helped that unity stick, even arranging special meetings to make sure homework was done.
Such as the moment at the state individual tournament the week of Oct. 13-15 when the freshmen (which included Sasha Shapsis at No. 1 doubles and Bridget Brown at No. 2 doubles) had some organizational issues.
"They were almost late to some of their matches, and I had to help get them there on time," Mikhailenko laughed. "Jackie was like 'Oh my goodness. Thank God you were here.'"
"It was so cute," said Egelhoff. "Katya made them come up and apologize to me afterward."
To help with concentration during state matches, Mikhailenko and others established a "phone bucket" where everyone put their cellphones -- not to be seen, heard or touched during actual play. "No technology" was the credo. There was also an effort make sure everyone who was in a match had at least three people watching and cheering for them.
But Mikhailenko and Egelhoff knew the freshmen were the talent core of this team. All three frosh singles players won more than 30 matches, and Shapsis teamed with junior transfer Frankie La Londe to form a top doubles team that took third in the individual tournament.
They were nice kids and were easy to get along with, Mikhailenko said.
"The tennis community in the state is pretty friendly, and I knew about Frankie and Andie and the others," she said
It all came together so fast for the team, Mikhailenko said, that she was having a "deja vu" moment back to her freshman year in 2013 when the Highlanders were favored to win their sixth title in a row but were upset in the state team semifinals by Middleton.
"We just started winning everything, just like we did that year," she said.
After the Highlanders established themselves, the season rolled along nicely through the North Shore Conference championship and the unbeaten run through the WIAA sectional tournament.
Then came the state individual tournament and Weise's upset of teammate Mikhailenko in the quarterfinals and the surprising defeat of the top-seeded LaLonde and Shapsis in the state doubles semifinals.
There was a little emotional reclamation work to be done between individual and team state, noted Mikhailenko, especially when it came to her loss to Weise.
"It was sort of like last year when I beat Anna (Kreynin in the state singles quarters); it was hard," she said. "It was heartbreaking, but if I was going to lose, I'd rather it be to a teammate."
It didn't quite work out that way at team state, but it was close enough. The 4-3 state quarterfinal win over Brookfield East was difficult, sealed by wins at all three doubles brackets and a straight set win by Weise at No. 2 singles.
The 6-1 victory over old rival Nicolet in the semifinals was surprisingly easy, with all the matches settled in straight sets, as Mikhailenko beat the always tough Amy Drame, 7-6, 6-0.
The final hinged on Mikhailenko's effort as well as the freshmen at third and fourth singles, as Yang lost a tough three-set decision at No. 3, and Gebhardt pulled out a tasking three-set win at No. 4.
Egelhoff said she had all the confidence in the world in her leader as Mikhailenko was among the last to hit the court.
"I just hoped she wasn't too fatigued from from the match with Amy (Drame)," Egelhoff said, "but she wasn't. I didn't need to talk to her too much before her match. She was so disciplined. She didn't need the extra motivation."
After the tears and the much anticipated awards ceremony, there were other rewards — a trip to the famous Ella's Deli in Madison for ice cream and then a team party back home at the Mequon Pizza Company.
After Egelhoff finally let herself relax with some well-deserved diet sodas, she and her assistants went back to the tennis shed on campus and talked about what had just happened until the wee hours of the morning.
"This one is really special," she said, "because at the start of the year we didn't expect it. To come back to the top so soon after our run was amazing. It was all surreal. We knew we had the talent, and everybody was so terrific all season long."
The leader on the court agreed.
"All season long, I was just trying to keep it simple," Mikhailenko said. "I was just hoping we'd win conference, and then after conference I was hoping we'd win sectional, and then we got to state and into the finals match. Someone needed to pinch me. It was just too good to be true."