The Big Sky Conference has been celebrating the league's success both on and off the playing field by honoring 50 years of men's athletics and 25 years of women's athletics. The 50th anniversary celebrates the all-time individuals, teams and moments in the Big Sky's history, including the selection of the league's "50 Greatest Male Athletes" and the "25 Greatest Female Athletes." Along with these lists, the league will unveil the most memorable moments for both men's and women's competition.
Katrina Zheltova, who played for the Hornets from 2007-10, made the list of "greatest female athletes" where she checks in at No. 14 after an incredibly successful career. The Minsk, Belarus, native finished her career as one of just two All-Americans in Hornet women's tennis history when she earned the honor in 2008. She was also a three-time Big Sky MVP, a member of the Sacramento State women's tennis all-decade team, and finished with a 52-17 dual-match singles record (.754 winning percentage). She was ranked as high as No. 21 in the nation during her Sacramento State tenure. Her performances in the 2007 and 2008 NCAA Singles Championships already cracked the list at No. 23 of the Big Sky's greatest women's moments.
Below is a story published on the Big Sky Conference's website....
Over the last decade, the Sacramento State women's tennis team has been nothing short of dominant. Since 2002, the Hornets have not lost a match to a conference opponent (105 straight wins), and have won the Big Sky Conference championship every year.
Along the way, Sacramento State has earned the MVP award every season since 2003. Katrina Zheltova was the second Hornet to earn the honor three straight years (2007-09). Zheltova was also the program's second All-American, advancing to the Round of 16 at the 2008 NCAA Singles Tournament.
Zheltova's all-around success on the court places her at No. 14 on the Big Sky's list of "25 Greatest Female Athletes."
Zheltova, a native of Minsk, Belarus, played for the Hornets from 2007-10, and went undefeated during her career against Big Sky competition. In fact, she didn't even drop a set to a Big Sky opponent during her sophomore and junior seasons.
As a freshman, Zheltova went 18-5 in singles play; all at the No. 1 spot. Of her five losses that season, four came against opponents that were ranked in the top 64 in the nation. She was voted the Big Sky MVP and was a first team all-league selection.
In the first round of the 2007 NCAA Singles Tournament, Zheltova upset 24th ranked Vanja Corovic of Texas in three sets. She then fell to seventh-ranked Natalie Frazier of Georgia in the second round.
"She did well her freshman season. But like many freshmen, she was still learning things," said Sacramento State Director of Tennis Bill Campbell. "The talent was always there, and quite honestly, I always felt she had the talent to be one of the best players in the world."
In 2008, her sophomore season, Zheltova was named the Big Sky MVP for the second straight season after going 13-5 in singles play, again at the No. 1 position. She went 4-0 against Big Sky opponents during regular season and postseason play, missing six matches with a back injury.
"She was a very hard worker, which was very special," said Campbell. "I think the most outstanding thing was that she was such a good competitor."
During that sophomore season, Zheltova became the second Sacramento State women's tennis player to gain All-America status after reaching the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Singles Championships. In the first round of the tournament, Zheltova defeated Laura Gioia of Furman, and in the second round, she beat a top 10 opponent, Sanaz Marand of North Carolina.
"My first two matches at the tournament were three sets, and it was stressful," said Zheltova. "As long as you get past the first round, the next one just comes easier even though the players are still very good."
"Her sophomore season, everything kind of came together," said Campbell. "She was comfortable being at Sacramento State, she was comfortable with school, and everything fit together."
Zheltova eventually lost to a top five-opponent, Maria Mosolova of Northwestern, in straight sets in the Round of 16, and finished the season ranked 34th in the nation.
"I was playing (Mosolova), and I knew her,'' Zheltova said. "She was from Russia, and you feel that added pressure because it's your friend."
During her junior year (2009), Zheltova began the season ranked 21st in the country. She went on to win her third straight Big Sky MVP award, posting a 13-4 singles record, including a 5-0 conference mark. She didn't drop a set during Big Sky play for the second straight season. Zheltova missed 11 matches during the season due to injury. She was also in the NCAA Singles Championship for the third straight year where she fell in the first round to South Carolina's Gira Schofield in three sets.
As a team, in 2009, Sacramento State faced No. 17 Michigan in the NCAA Tournament. Zheltova defeated 63rd-ranked Chisako Sugiyama at the No. 1 spot, but the Hornets fell, 4-2.
Before her senior season was cut short due to injuries, Zheltova went 8-3 at No. 1 singles. She opened the year ranked No. 26 in the country. The statistical highlight of the season occurred when Zheltova upset No. 4 Denise Dy of Washington in straight sets.
"She made a solid effort every time she was on the court," said Campbell. "Unfortunately, she got hurt during her senior year and that held her back. She was playing very well before the injury."
During her career, she collected a 52-17 record in singles play, all at the No. 1 position.
"Before I came to Sacramento State, I was on the Belarus national team, so I was already playing on the national level," Zheltova said of playing at the No. 1 spot from day one. "When you are playing at the No. 1 spot, often times you are playing someone who is good enough to have a national ranking."
Campbell could tell that Zheltova was different than most student-athletes.
"With many student-athletes, by their senior year, they are thinking of other things in life. Katrina was different," said Campbell. "When she was on the court, 99 percent of the time she was completely focused on being competitive and winning. She was great to have on the team."
Zheltova's connection to Sacramento State traces a long way back.
"Dima (Hyrnashka) and Slava (Konikov) knew me since I was little," said Zheltova. "They invited me to play for the team and I was thinking, 'Yeah I want to go to America, but I don't know how the whole process works.' I was one of the first people to go to America from my country and play collegiate tennis."
Zheltova not only had to adjust to her first year of college; she also had to adjust to living in America.
"When you first get to the United States, and you're 17 or 18 years old, and you go outside and people ask you 'How are you?' You're shocked,'' she said. "You never heard that back home.
"My first and second seasons, we had about five Russians so it was easy because we spoke the same language," said Zheltova about the team coming together. "But when you have a lot of internationals, everyone is different and everyone is concentrating on English because no one was really that good at the language yet."
Campbell was a very instrumental part in Zheltova's success on and off the court.
"He was like my father, and was really helpful throughout the whole four years," she said. "Bill did a lot, not just for me; he did a lot for everyone on the team. I pretty much shared everything with him. He helped me learn the language, because when I came here, I didn't know any English. But without him, I wouldn't be here."
As she looks back on her career at Sacramento State, one of Zheltova's most memorable moments was when the Hornets played a match at Northern Arizona when the team didn't know how to handle the altitude difference.
"I've never played at that altitude so I didn't know how to play in it,'' she said. "Both teams started warming up, but honestly nobody on our team could keep the ball inside the court because it was just flying out."
The team was looking to their coach for answers.
"We thought it was a joke," said Zheltova. "Everyone was looking at the coach and he was just sitting there drinking coffee and Coach said, 'I don't know how to explain it. You have to figure it out.'
"I figured out how to play in the altitude just fine. I didn't know it was even possible to play there," said Zheltova. "At the beginning, it was so funny to see everyone looking at the ball like something was wrong."
The Hornets ended up defeating Northern Arizona, 4-3, in one of the team's closest Big Sky matches since 2002.
Zheltova is still heavily involved with tennis. She currently works for the Weil Tennis Academy in Ojai, Calif.