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.
Margarita Karnaukhova, who played for the Hornets from 2003-06, made the list of the 25 Greatest Female Athletes in Big Sky history, coming in at No. 6. The Krasnodar, Russia, native was a four-time Big Sky Most Valuable player, and remains the only student-athlete in the 50-year history of the conference (in any sport) to earn four MVP awards. She also became the first player in Sacramento State women's tennis history to earn All-America honors after advancing to the Sweet 16 of the 2004 NCAA Singles Tournament. She finished her career with a 66-17 dual-match singles record (.795 winning percentage) and was a member of the Sacramento State women's tennis all-decade team.
Below is a story published by the Big Sky Conference....
Over the last decade, the Sacramento State women's tennis team has been nothing short of dominant. The Hornets have not lost a conference match or a conference title since 2002.
During the run, Sacramento State has earned the MVP award every season since 2003. In the 50-year history of the Big Sky Conference, Margarita Karnaukhova is the only male or female student-athlete to earn four Most Valuable Player awards in any sport. Karnaukhova was also the program's first All-American, advancing to the round of 16 in the 2004 NCAA Singles Tournament.
Karnaukhova's dominant four-year career places her at number six on the Big Sky's list of "25 Greatest Female Athletes."
Karnaukhova, a native of Krasnodar, Russia, played for the Hornets from 2003-2006 and never lost a match to a Big Sky Conference opponent. She was ranked as high as 14th in the FILA Intercollegiate Tennis Rankings and finished with a 66-17 career record at the No. 1 spot.
At the age of 16, Karnaukhova moved away from her family to come to America. The first couple of months were so exciting and fun, she said. But in time, "I realized how hard it was to be away from my family. I missed my mom and dad and just being able to speak Russian all the time"
Even though it was her first year on the college team, it was easy for Karnaukhova and the Hornets to get along.
"I wasn't a very shy young lady, nor were the rest of my teammates," said Karnaukhova. "We loved the fact that we were from different backgrounds and spoke different languages."
The experiences of competing in international tournaments prior to arriving at Sacramento State helped ease the transition.
"She came in as a very complete player,'' said Sacramento State Director of Tennis Bill Campbell. "She had lots of instruction. She just knew how to play tennis."
During her freshman campaign in 2003, Karnaukhova finished the season 11-4, all of which came at the No. 1 position. She earned her first Big Sky Conference MVP award and finished the year ranked No. 51 in the nation, becoming the first ever ranked player in Sacramento State history.
When thinking back of her time playing at No. 1 as a freshman, Karnaukhova remembers, "being excited and feeling a little pressure to show my team that I deserve the spot."
"She's playing at No. 1 as a freshman and playing against seniors at No. 1 from other schools," said Campbell. "No matter how good you are, if you're a freshman, you just don't have that experience."
Campbell believes that the most development you'll see in a student-athlete is in between their first and second year.
In the first round of the 2004 NCAA Singles Tournament, Karnaukhova upset ninth-ranked Agata Cioroch of Georgia in three sets.
In 2004, she enjoyed her most successful season, coming into the season ranked 14th in the nation. As a sophomore, Karnaukhova went 20-4 at the No. 1 singles spot. All 20 of her victories came in straight sets. Also included in those straight-set wins were four consecutive singles victories over ranked opposition.
In the first round of the 2004 NCAA Singles Tournament, Karnaukhova upset ninth-ranked Agata Cioroch of Georgia in three sets. In the second round, she beat Nataly Cahana of Old Dominion, who was ranked 30th, in straight sets.
"She had a great backhand, an overwhelming, totally domineering backhand that really kind of set the stage," recalls Campbell.
Karnaukhova eventually fell to seventh-ranked and defending national champion Amber Liu of Stanford. After defeating Karnaukhova, Liu went on to become a back-to-back national singles champion.
After advancing to the Sweet 16, Karnaukhova became the first player in school history to earn All-American honors. She finished her sophomore season ranked 33rd in the nation and earned her second straight Big Sky Conference MVP award.
During her junior season, Karnaukhova, then ranked 22nd, earned her third straight Big Sky Conference MVP award. In the NCAA Tournament, she appeared to be heading for a repeat of the previous season.
In the first round, she defeated No. 50 Courtney Bergman of Harvard in three sets. However, in the second round, Karnaukhova lost to 12th-ranked Kristi Miller, a freshman from Georgia Tech.
She finished her junior year with a 25-3 singles record, going 7-1 against ranked opponents.
Karnaukhova's final season was in 2006. She advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year but fell to 30th ranked Catrina Thompson of Notre Dame in the first round in a three-set match.
"I was playing my best tennis at that point, but due to mental weakness I gave in," said Karnaukhova. "That's a great example of how much the mental game is as important as physical."
She finished her senior season 10-6 in singles and earned her fourth straight Big Sky Conference MVP award. As of 2011, she was one of five female athletes in NCAA Division I history to win four consecutive conference MVP awards.
Her senior year was hindered by a recurring back injury.
"The back problem started my freshman year, I struggled with it for four years,'' she said.
In the fall before her senior year, she was out for three months. It hurt her to breathe, to sleep, even to sit down and do homework. It especially hurt her while she was playing, she said.
"I was always playing in pain, but I was very careful,'' she recalled.
Karnaukhova finished her career 66-17, all at the No. 1 spot. During her four-year career at No. 1, she never lost to a Big Sky opponent.
As she looks back on her career at Sacramento State, one of Karnaukhova's most memorable moments was the relationship she made with Marta Harsh, whom she still talks to on a daily basis.
"I remember that Marta and I clicked and became close really fast," said Karnaukhova. "We played doubles together and always hoped to be roommates on trips."
The road trips were some of the most tiring weekends for the team.
"We used to get to the hotel room so tired after a long match," recalled Karnaukhova. "We'd shower, eat dinner and then after a little talking before bed, we'd get hungry again and go buy everything that a human can fit in two pockets from vending machines."
Even though the trips were some of the most tiring times for her, the student-athletes visited some amazing places.
"It was really nice to be able to visit beautiful places like Hawaii and Palm Springs," said Karnaukhova. "We took it for granted back then, but now I understand how lucky I was."
Karnaukhova is now a first-time mother of 8-month old Nastassia. She still resides in Sacramento with her husband Joseph Gilbert, a former Sacramento State men's tennis player. She still enjoys the game and was even coaching tennis up until she was eight months pregnant.