April 16, 2018
By Brad Muller | More Features
Talent can take you far, but sometimes leadership and team chemistry can put a team over the top when it comes to competing for championships. South Carolina women’s tennis has created a culture of “buy-in” from its student-athletes where the Gamecocks hold each other accountable without being prompted by the coaches.
“They meet a lot now on their own, and they have taken ownership over the program,” said head coach Kevin Epley. “That has been instrumental in our success this year. We focus on us, our standards, and what we like to bring to every match.
“This is not a coach-driven thing. It’s a team-driven thing. That’s how you want it. You want the girls to own their future and to own the direction. Sometimes (assistant coach) Jeff (Nevolo) and I just stand back and watch, and it’s a pretty neat thing to see.”
“That’s been the goal all along,” said senior Hadley Berg. “Each year we build on that culture where we could get to this place. The coaches aren’t the ones out there playing. This is our team, so it means more when it comes from us, and we’re holding each other accountable. We get more done that way.”
“That’s one of our biggest strengths, and I think it’s really displayed during our matches,” added junior Paige Cline. “We have a lot of power in that it’s our leadership. The desire to win and practice hard is coming from internal sources.”
The sometimes “hands-off” approach from the coaching staff was evident earlier this season after South Carolina blanked Missouri 4-0.
“It’s funny because I was happy with the performance and happy with the girls, and when we talked after the match, there were some things that they picked up that they weren’t happy with,” Epley said. “That was nice to see. It was nice to see they were honing-in on some things that they felt they could do better that we weren’t aware of. They’re always looking toward the future in terms of where they are now and where they could be in the next match.”
“After matches, we talk as a team before we talk with the coaches,” Berg said. “We know our games, and we know what we need to work on. We can call each other out for things and work on it for the next week.”
“Our goal is to measure our success on how well we meet our own standards, and not just the win or the loss,” Cline said. “After each match, we get together to see if we met those standards, and what we can do better in the next match. We don’t get too high or too low.”
We don’t feel like we have a ceiling this year.
The evolution of the program didn’t come overnight.
“Personal accountability has always been one of the goals for the coaches since I’ve been here,” Berg said. “Everyone on the team has stepped up to realize that’s the path we want to take.”
“When I first came here, it was more of an authoritarian model,” Epley said. “We were trying to get them to compete and to practice hard. As we go through years, they get more mature and buy in to the culture to where it’s more of a cooperative model. It’s much more democratic. They’re much more involved in the culture of the team, the values of the team, and the standards of the team. They come together and hold each other accountable.
“A lot of the girls this year have really stepped up and are competing hard. I think the number one key to our success is that our girls will fight, and they’re very feisty. They’ll go as far as it takes in a match to win. When they feel pain, they keep going.”
In addition to feeding off each other’s intensity, the Gamecocks have rallied together to feed off the excitement from a home crowd as well as that of an opposing crowd on the road as South Carolina was a perfect 6-0 in SEC matches away from home this spring.
“Our culture is that we’re going to work no matter where we are,” Cline said. “That mentality has helped us to where I think we really enjoyed playing on the road in those tough situations.”
“We tried to turn road matches into home matches and shut the crowd up a little bit,” Berg said. “That helped unite us as one.”
The Gamecocks have already achieved a lot this spring, including a school-record top 5 national ranking a few weeks ago along with an incredible 13 match win streak. Unlike years past, this team opted not to be too specific in the beginning of the year about their goals for the season and have adopted the mindset that “old ceiling are new floors.”
“We learned from last year, and we knew how good we could be this year,” Berg said. “We don’t feel like we have a ceiling this year. We measure everything on how well we are meeting our own standards and how we can improve each week. Our biggest goals are to take care of the little things that can make us better and to be playing our best tennis at NCAA Tournament time.”
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