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vs. Michigan
What: NCAA tournament, first round
Where: Ann Arbor, Mich.
When: 1 p.m. today
Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
Caterina Kiefer and IPFW begin play in the NCAA tournament today in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Mastodons find gem on YouTube

– Here’s the stark reality of that worldwide video sensation known as YouTube: Search it long enough, chances are just about anything is a click away. Ask IPFW women’s tennis coach Eric Burns. He found Caterina Kiefer.

“We find a lot of kids like that,” Burns said. “We don’t spend a huge amount of money in recruiting.”

If proof were needed, he tells the tale of how he was on YouTube and came across Kiefer, who had posted her video along with a brief bio mentioning that she was searching for a new place to play collegiate tennis.

A Burns phone call to Kiefer, who was home in Balingen, Germany, followed by some back-and-forth emails, followed by shared faxes to sign here, here and initial here, and the Mastodons had themselves a player who helped lead them to two NCAA tournament appearances, including today’s match against Michigan, in three years.

With Kiefer playing at No. 2 singles and teamed with fellow senior Anita Henstrosa at No. 1 doubles, IPFW (23-7) brings a 17-match winning streak into Ann Arbor, Mich., where it will face Big Ten regular-season champion and No. 6 Michigan (21-5) in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.

The sweep through Summit League opponents during the regular season wasn’t enough to secure IPFW’s bid into the NCAA tournament. Much like the familiar basketball scenario for mid-major conferences, the Mastodons had to win the league tourney to receive an automatic bid.

Needing four points to win the best-of-seven title match against a UMKC team that refused to surrender, Kiefer did her part nearly two weeks ago on the IPFW courts. She and Henestrosa contributed to the doubles point with an 8-3 win, then Kiefer won her No. 2 singles match 6-3, 7-5. With Kiefer having a hand in half her team’s points, IPFW’s 4-3 win over UMKC thrust the Mastodons into the NCAA tournament for the third time in four years.

As for Kiefer, this will be her second NCAA appearance, at least technically speaking. Entering the tournament with a 30-5 singles record and on a 23-match winning streak, Kiefer was nearly three games into her No. 4 singles match two years ago at Northwestern when her left knee gave out.

“I had to run down a wide forehand,” Kiefer said. “I just twisted it.”

Worried, but determined, she played one more point before defaulting.

“It was a very sad moment because I tore my ACL, and I had to stop playing for over six months – more like eight months,” she says with a trace of German accent. “At that moment, especially, I didn’t know if I would ever come back. So this is real exciting for me.”

She left at No. 4 singles and returns at No. 2, where she earned first-team All-Summit League status. She was also named to the All-Academic team.

“It made her a huge leader for us; that, plus her experience on championship teams,” Burns said of Kiefer’s return. “She was part of that team that was 27-4 back in 2011. That experience alone, and being in the NCAA tournament, made her an ideal leader. But she’s been through a lot trying to come back from that ACL and worked her way through that. She’s battled injuries all year to keep fighting and get through the season and get us in this position.”

It was after the 2009-10 tennis season when she decided to leave Columbus State in Georgia, which led to her YouTube video.

“It’s a Division II school,” she says. “I know it sounds a little bit cocky, but I thought I could play Division I.”

Burns also thought she could play D-I.

“She’s a great kid,” Burns said. “She’s very mature, good student, soft-spoken sometimes, but someone who always gives her best effort out there and work hard for the team.

“She’s got an unbelievable backhand; one of the smoothest, nicest backhands you will ever see.”

Either in person, or on YouTube.