By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Her career as a Hawkeye might only last one season, but that’s one more season than Alexa Noel ever thought she would spend playing college tennis.
As far as recruiting stories go, the way in which Noel became an Iowa Hawkeye is about as unusual as it gets.
Even though her parents are originally from Grinnell, Noel grew up in New Jersey and had no interest in playing tennis for Iowa, or for any college for that matter, because she had bigger dreams and loftier goals as a rising star in her sport.
Noel was eager, and poised to launch her professional career after high school, but then the outbreak of the coronavirus in early 2020 changed everything.
Noel faced the possibility of not being able to play competitive tennis as the sports world suddenly shifted into lockdown, and that was a depressing thought.
But then she thought about the University of Iowa as an option, because in addition to her mother having attended Iowa, Noel’s parents also had become acquainted with the Iowa coaching staff, thanks to a chance meeting on a street in London during the 2019 Wimbledon event.
Noel’s parents were in London to watch their daughter compete in the junior division at Wimbledon when they crossed paths with Iowa head coach Sasha Schmid and assistant coach Daniel Leitner, both of whom were wearing Hawkeye attire.
“My parents are, obviously, Iowa natives and my mom came to the University of Iowa and I think one of them just yelled ‘go Hawks’ and that’s really how the conversation started,” Alexa Noel said Friday. “I never actually spoke to Sasha or Danny in London or any of that.
“But a year later, I wasn’t sure where my life was taking me at the time. Obviously, I knew I wanted to play, but I had no opportunity to play. So Iowa is just kind of where I landed.”
Noel began to seriously consider Iowa last June. She and a friend were having a conversation at Noel’s home in New Jersey when her friend asked about her plans for tennis.
“I was at home and we were just hanging out and she asked me, what are your plans now?” Noel said of her friend. “Do you think you’re going to go to college now?
“And I was like, I don’t want to. College was never my dream.”
But the more she thought about it, the more sense it made for Noel to attend college, and the University of Iowa had certainly caught her attention, partly due to her parents’ connection to the state, and to the Iowa coaching staff.
“I was talking to my family and were just like, well, what do you think? Maybe that is a good option, considering you’re not going to be able to play anything,” Noel said. “And I was like, well, maybe you’re right.”
And now the rest is history being made as Noel as a freshman has lived up to her reputation as a rising star in women’s tennis.
She is 21-0, including 15-0 against Big Ten competition, and 5-0 against ranked opponents. Noel is also ranked 13th nationally, which is the highest ranking in program history.
But oddly enough, without the global pandemic, none of this would’ve happened.
“If it wasn’t for Covid, I 100 percent would not be here,” Noel said.
A while, of course, the individual success means a great deal to Noel, she also has embraced the team aspect. She loves being a Hawkeye, and everything that comes with it, from the camaraderie to the loyalty to the school spirit.
Iowa is currently 11-6 and having one of the best seasons in program history.
“Playing for a team is playing for something bigger than yourself,” Noel said. “It’s special. It’s a lot of fun. I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything at the moment.”
Noel is uncertain about her future beyond this season.
But she still has plenty of tennis to play for Iowa, with the regular-season finale at Nebraska up next on Sunday followed by the Big Ten Tournament on April 29 to May 2 in Madison, Wis., and then finally the NCAA Championships in May.
“I don’t know, I’m just trying to take it one step at a time, one day at a time,” Noel said. “It’s really hard to say. We have a lot of tennis left to be play.”
“So it depends on how the rest of the season goes and how NCAA goes. But I’m pretty unsure right now.”
What she is sure about is that choosing to attend Iowa is one of the best decisions that Noel has made in her life.
She has made friendships that will last forever, and she already is probably the best player in program history.
Her rise as a tennis star has taken Noel all over the world to compete, and she feels so fortunate to have had that unique experience.
But college is different, because as Noel likes to point out, she is part of something that is much bigger than herself, and is reminded of that each time she competes with her Iowa teammates.
“It’s a completely different environment, just to know that you have other people out on the court fighting for you, for themselves, for Iowa, for our coaches, just grinding for something like I said that’s bigger than yourself,” Noel said. “It’s crazy, and obviously, none of us want to let each other down, and not even in a results-oriented way.
“Not taking one point off is important, and having some of my best friends out there next to me wanting the same things I do is awesome. It’s truly incredible.”
Noel is also very proud to be part of a select group of current Hawkeye student-athletes whose individual success is unprecedented, along with basketball stars Luka Garza and Caitlin Clark and wrestler Spencer Lee.
Each of them from an individual standpoint has reached a level that is unmatched in their sport at Iowa.
Garza finished his career last month as Iowa’s most decorated men’s basketball player, including being named the consensus National Player of the Year, while Clark earned All-America status as a freshman.
Spencer Lee also won his third national title at 125 pounds last month, and did so in dominating fashion despite having a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee.
“Hawks support Hawks no matter the sport,” Noel said. “It’s incredible to see Caitlin Clark and Luka Garza and his accomplishments, and Spencer Lee just continuing to dominate. It’s definitely something I want to part of and to be put in that group of athletes is super cool.”