Alejandra Blanco had just won her match at No. 1 singles sealing a solid victory for the SIU women’s tennis team.

By Gus Bode

Alejandra Blanco had just won her match at No. 1 singles sealing a solid victory for the SIU women’s tennis team.

But there was not much time to celebrate.

She helped the team gather up the equipment, attended a brief team talk with head coach Judy Auld and watched as her teammates iced down and briefly attended to their various injuries.


After a quick meal consisting of Vanilla Wafers, a banana and Gatorade, Blanco left University Courts in a hurry.

It was time to forget about tennis for at least a few hours because for Blanco and three of her teammates – her sister Maria, Jessica Knitter and Tana Trapani – there were more urgent matters to attend to.

It was Good Friday, and they had to get to church.

They left the courts at about 6:15 p.m., giving them only 45 minutes to drive home, change out of their sweaty tennis clothes, shower and make it back to the Newman Center for 7 p.m. mass.

Trapani and Blanco made it just before the service began, but Maria and Knitter walked in 10 minutes later.

They could have blown off the Friday service and their parents would never have been the wiser. They could have used the fatigue of playing a collegiate tennis match as an excuse.

But they did not because to them, attending mass is not a chore – it is a privilege and a huge part of their lives.


“You always have something to thank God for, and it’s just my way of having my time with Him,” Trapani said. “I can just focus on me and him and I don’t have to worry about other people or what other people are thinking.”

The four attend as many masses as they can, and were especially eager to make it during holy week. Auld intentionally schedules matches to allow her four Catholic players to attend church, and as a result, the four did not have to go through the same routine two days later on Easter.

Auld attempts to avoid the conflicts not only because half her team is Catholic, but because she knows how important it is to the four women.

Back in her native California, Knitter, like both Blancos and Trapani, grew up in the Catholic Church and took her beliefs with her to Carbondale, which turned out to be the perfect setting for her – and her mother.

Knitter’s mother is always reminding her to go to mass, and with three other teammates around to do it with, it is that much easier for her to practice what she deeply believes is the one true faith.

“It’s truly what I believe,” Knitter said. “Going to religious education classes, I got a chance to explore the Catholic faith, and I just sincerely think that what I believe is the truth.”

But for Knitter, religion is about more than pursuing the truth. For her, religion has always been a means of dealing with adversity, be it tennis, school or everyday life.

In the past few years her sister has died, her mother has been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and her grandmother has suffered through Alzheimer’s. Without her faith, ordeals such as those would be infinitely more difficult to overcome.

“It’s definitely a very strong force in my life,” Knitter said. “Basically, all the tough times I’ve been through, I’ve always looked to my faith to help me through them. It’s kind of been my crutch through life.

“Even if I just have a bad day, it just helps me bring peace into my life.”

Trapani shares sentiments similar to Knitter’s. She used religion as a leg-up when she suffered continuous injuries last season. Tired of worrying about it, Trapani decided that whatever was going with her injuries was for the best, so she put all of her stress, uncertainty and worries into God’s hands.

“You know what God, I’m giving it all to you,” Trapani told her creator last year. “I’ll let you worry about it because I can’t worry about it all right now.”

It’s a faith she learned form her grandmother, who she called Nana. She died when Trapani was 14 after she had lived with Trapani’s family for three years.

Although technically a Catholic through baptism, Trapani said it was during those three years she developed her faith and her appreciation for the Catholic Church.

“I really watched her deteriorate for about three years and I got to watch her faith in God all the way to the end,” Trapani said. “I think that made me believe in God a lot more just to see how strong she was going through it and how she wasn’t scared to die because she knew she was going to go to heaven.

“That was the first time I really was proud to say ‘yeah, I’m Catholic. I do really believe in this. It’s not just something mom and dad make you go to. It’s something I want to do for myself.”

For the Blanco sisters, becoming a Catholic was not as much of an active choice as it was a pre-ordained destiny. They grew up in Mexico, where nearly everyone is Catholic, and both went to an all-girls Catholic school for 15 years.

But when the two arrived in Carbondale, the word Catholic took on a whole new meaning.

The Blancos are used to huge, magnificent churches with gorgeous statues and stained glass like the one they attended in Guadalajara – a stark contrast form the folded chairs and utilitarian style employed at the Newman Center. Churches in America, they said, are much smaller and much more social.

American masses are also longer, something that clearly got to Maria during Friday’s mass. She said she was already hyper from her tennis match, and she fidgeted for the duration of the one-and-a-half hour long mass, jokingly saying “Just let me go,” at the one-hour mark.

“I’m getting used to it, but in pretty much all I do I’m hyper,” Maria said.

There are also religious differences. The two did not accept Holy Communion at Friday’s mass because in Mexico, you are not allowed to take communion unless you have undergone confession. They have not gone to confession because they want to do it in Spanish, and the Newman Center does not have anyone that would understand them.

But they still feel like part of the church community and are content with what they have found in Carbondale.

“I like both,” Blanco said of the American and Mexican churches. “Sometimes I kind of need the church structure (the building itself). Because at the Newman Center, it’s not really like a church.”

“But it’s nice that you can go and talk to people.”

Occasionally, like it did on Friday, the church’s schedule conflicts with their tennis schedule, and they are forced to make compromises. The four were unable to fast on Good Friday because they had a match and knew they would probably lose if they didn’t eat.

But that’s fine with them.

When it happens, they don’t stage any protests or complain. They call themselves progressive Catholics and believe God understands that they have to play tennis.

“Faith is not having to attend church everyday. Faith is your belief in God,” Knitter said. “Yes, the Catholic Church is the structure in which you can practice that faith and you should try to follow the rules as much as possible, but God understands that you have other obligations as well that you have to fulfill.

“It’s OK to have an occasional conflict.”

But all four made it known that despite having to occasionally choose between a mass and tennis, faith is still the first priority in their lives, and no other facet of their lives would exist without God.

“I look back and at my past years and I thank God because I know all that I have is because of him,” Maria said.

Reporter Michael Brenner can be reached at [email protected]