When Lexxi Kiven took over the Stevenson program before this season, she wasn’t willing to make any swift changes. But she didn’t rule out what could’ve been the biggest change of all.
Athena and Alaina Kolli, sisters and doubles partners for the Patriots, reached the state championship match last season. They lost 6-0, 6-1 to a Wheaton Warrenville South duo, but their returns in 2019 — Athena is a senior, and Alaina is a sophomore — set them up for another shot.
On the second day of preseason practice, the sisters approached Kiven with a question: “Will we still be partners this year?” Kiven wasn’t sure. She had to observe and analyze the situation before guaranteeing anything.
A few days later, Kiven knew the Kollis couldn’t be separated.
“I hadn’t seen them play before they asked,” Kiven said. “But the second I watched them actually play together, I realized it was a special team. It’s so easy to see. That’s a team you want to keep together and pretty much a no-brainer.”
The Kollis were relieved. Athena Kolli could spend her senior season playing with her sister again, and the goal of returning to state was attainable.
“Once we got to the final (last season), I think that’s when the expectations started to hit us a little bit,” Athena Kolli said. “Before that, we were a complete unknown. But we had a really good semifinal match, coming back from a set down. And the final, it really just happened so fast.
“Just because it was my junior year, we knew we had another shot, so that was comforting but also motivating. That’s been driving us.”
The sisters received a boost from Kiven, a Stevenson graduate who succeeded Angela Muresan. In 2013 Kiven and Kaylin Dong won the first state doubles title in program history and went 33-1.
Kiven graduated from Dartmouth in 2018 and jumped at the chance to return to her alma mater this year. She didn’t know much about the Kollis but reckoned she could lend some advice to an elite-level doubles team.
“They play off each other so well,” Kiven said. “Athena really, truly mentors Alaina. And Alania really respects Athena. To have that level of mutual respect is rare. I’ve never once seen them get mad at each other; they’re so supportive. That’s an amazing thing to watch.”
The quest to return to the state finals begins at the Class 2A Stevenson Sectional on Friday. The Kollis, who lost just two regular-season matches, hope a strategic change — to be more aggressive — will provide the necessary boost.
Athena Kolli said she hopes to play Division III tennis next season and major in engineering. Until then, there are other expectations to navigate.
“In the second match of the season, we lost to Highland Park, and that was an eye-opening moment for us,” Athena Kolli said. “I realized how much weight I was taking on my shoulders. In that moment, I had to tell myself that the weight doesn’t help. I know we’re talented, and I know how hard we’ve worked. So we saw Highland Park the next week and were able to win.
“Carrying those expectations doesn’t help. We know they’re there.”
Rich Mayor is a freelance reporter for the News-Sun.