Leadership in college athletics doesn't have to come from your top scorer or your oldest player. Natalie Looney has gone from walking-on to the South Carolina women's tennis team to a role as a leader on and off the court, even if she's not in the lineup every day.
"When I originally came in I was a little scared," Looney said. "I knew I wasn't as good as some of the other girls, but our whole team really respects each other off the court too. I think they respect certain things I do, and I really do believe I can be a leader no matter what position I am playing."
The red-shirt sophomore from Overland Park, KS, originally had plans on attending another school, but after a coaching change, she visited South Carolina on the way back from playing at a tournament in Florida. She immediately discovered that Coach Kevin Epley's philosophy of changing the culture fit right in with how she had been taught.
"Natalie was somebody we saw who fit all of the criteria in terms of effort, character and in principles we were pushing for."
Coach Kevin Epley
Epley, who is now in his third year with the Gamecocks, explained that when a new coach comes into a program, it's only natural to seek out those student-athletes who fit in with the coach's philosophy, and he saw that Natalie Looney was one who could fit.
"Even though she wasn't ranked as high, Natalie was somebody we saw who fit all of the criteria in terms of effort, character and in principles we were pushing for," Epley said. "She's been a real catalyst as far as building this culture. There are some areas where a more experienced player has more insight, but as far as general leadership skills, effort, being consistent day-to-day and being assertive with the others - that's something where she's really a natural."
Looney played at different spots in the lineup last year, posting six wins in singles play. She sees her role as helping the Gamecocks mesh as a team and display a strong work ethic no matter where she plays, or even if she is not in the lineup.
"I feel like we have the culture now where if someone needs to work on something, they're going to take ownership of it and do it," Looney said. "So if one person is doing it, then everyone else doesn't want to get behind."
With two more years remaining in her collegiate career, Looney recalled one of her best memories as a Gamecock so far was on a day where all of her teammates had already finished their matches, while hers was still being played.
"We had already won, but they were all on the court cheering for me," Looney said. "I'm always cheering for them when I'm not playing, so it was really cool to see them do the exact same thing for me."
With the team reaching the NCAA Tournament each of the last two years, Looney knows that cracking the lineup will be difficult again this year because the program's standards are at a very high level.
"Our lineup is so good where the #6 player is good enough to beat the #1 player sometimes," Looney said. "We're not really competing against each other per say, it's more like we're competing against ourselves and our own standards, which is good for the team because everyone's doing their best to get in the lineup."
Not surprisingly, her biggest goal this year is a team goal.
"We could win the SEC and do really well in the NCAA (Tournament)," Looney said. "I know I can't always control when I'm going to play, but I think if I give everything I have to the team and to my game by doing all of the little things, it's the only way I'm going to improve as much as I want to."
Coach Epley acknowledges that Looney has the respect of her teammates, and still wants to get better.
"She's still learning," Epley said. "But she's really come a long way."