Dec. 10, 2015
By Brad Muller | More Features
Expectations are always high for South Carolina women's tennis, and that holds true this year as Gamecock coach Kevin Epley welcomed the No. 12 ranked recruiting class along with six returning student-athletes from a team that reached the NCAA Tournament for the 21st consecutive season last spring. As the Gamecocks wrapped up their fall season of tournament play, Epley has liked what he has seen so far from his newcomers.
"Paige Cline came in a little bit injured, but she has proven to be a `gamer,' " Epley said. "She's had some really good wins and had a really good match in the (Intercollegiate Tennis Association) Regionals against the now-number one ranked player in the country. So she has proven that she can compete at a very high level and is one who can improve extremely quickly.
"Ingrid Gamarra Martins had a great win at regionals over one of the top freshman in the country. She has also steadily improved. So those two have been pretty remarkable this semester."
The rookies have come from near and far, with Cline hailing from California, Gamarra Martins from Brazil, Ellie Zogg from Texas, Rachel Rohrabacher from Florida, and Hannah Templeton from North Carolina. Despite their different backgrounds, the group has already formed good chemistry with their classmates as well as the veteran players on the team.
"We're working harder than ever and the team pushes us," Zogg said.
"The team dynamic is one of the reasons I chose (South Carolina)," Rohrabacher said. "It's a little different because they graduated a few seniors last year, but it's still very good. The older players got us through `Morning Madness' and meetings too. The first thing I thought about meetings with coach was that I was in trouble for something, but they told me to just relax and that it's all part of it."
Adjusting to the intensity level of SEC matches is just one of several tough challenges for freshmen transitioning to college tennis.
"You're playing for a team in a much more pressure-filled environment than they have been exposed to," Epley said. "Generally, it takes most freshmen a year to really understand the nature of the competition and get used to that kind of pressure."
"It's a lot more intense than a lot of people are ready for or can anticipate," Cline said. "We started off with `Morning Madness,' which is two weeks of 6 a.m. workouts. That set the tone for what to expect. It's so much more physical in college than playing in junior tennis. The girls are a lot bigger and stronger in college. Everyone is more fit, and in this conference, everyone is mentally tough."
"The matches can be very mentally draining," Rohrabacher said. "So when SEC play starts, it will be good to have only one match per day."
"It's going to be harder, but it will be good because you're not playing alone," Gamarra Martins said. "You have the support of your teammates outside the court. Every match will be a battle. That's what I want, and that's what I like."
Injuries to Rohrabacher and Zogg limited their playing time in the fall, but Epley feels good about their abilities when healthy.
"Rachel started off really well, but she was hampered by shin splints," Epley said. "She is a really strong player. Ellie Zogg had a shoulder injury, but she has already proven she can play at a very high level in doubles. All in all, we are very impressed with what we have with the freshmen."
I just want to play, fight for every point and help my teammates to get a win.
The team now transitions from individual match play in tournaments in the fall season to a full schedule of team-play in the spring.
"I love being on a team," Templeton said. "I played on a few teams in juniors, and it's the most exciting time. It's fun to be loud in a sport where you normally can't be. I'm very loud. I think being on a team is what makes college tennis way better than junior tennis."
"Paige and Ingrid have already passed our expectations, however we'll see what that's going to mean in terms of going into the team season in the spring," Epley said. "It can be a grind. It's promising, but we have a lot left to prove. They've never seen this kind of competition, so we just have to see how they respond given the day in and day out SEC competition."
Epley added that the newcomers are also having to make a lot of adjustments off the court.
"They're adjusting to a lot of different things, including being away from home for the first time and being mature enough to manage their time, both socially and academically," Epley said. "It's just another layer of potential pressure freshmen have to figure out."
"The school part has been the biggest adjustment because I was home-schooled, so having this huge work load is a lot more difficult," Zogg said.
"It's been very different for me, but I'm trying to take advantage of everything here that the university has to offer for us," Gamarra Martins said. "The first month was hard because we'd finish practicing at 6 at night, and then I'd have to do my studying. I adjusted well, and I'm doing well now. The hardest part is to adjust to having school and practice because we practice a lot."
"It's a combination of everything," Cline said. "I have definitely spent a lot more time in the study room and the library than I ever had before, and at the same time, I've spent more time on the court and in the weight room than ever before."
The No. 12 ranking for the freshman class was actually released before Gamarra Martins signed on to play at South Carolina. Even with that recognition and some of the student-athletes receiving individual national rankings after the fall season, young players aren't putting too much pressure on themselves to live up to early accolades.
"I feel like there is less pressure on us because I know they are going to really bust their butts to do their best," Zogg said. "We have a really good group of competitors. I like it a lot because our team is full of players with different games. Paige is a hard hitter, and she has a lot of spin. Hannah is more of a defensive player. Then Ingrid just comes to the net, and she's super tall and just rips it. (Junior) Brigit (Folland) is steady with a lot of slices, so you're seeing a lot of different game styles come into play every day. So when you get into matches you know you've seen all those styles, and you know how to play against it."
"As a freshman, no matter how well you did in juniors, you are always considered the underdog in college tennis because it's just a higher level," Cline said. "In a way, that's good. I don't think there is any pressure, but you do want to meet that standard."
As the new players take a little break over the holidays, they are indeed excited about making a difference for the Gamecocks in the spring.
"I just want to play, fight for every point and help my teammates to get a win," Gamarra Martins said. "I just want to improve every day. I had good chemistry with my teammates, and that is important. I need my teammates to help me and push me."
"I definitely want to play in the lineup in the spring," Templeton said. "That's my biggest goal because we have a really strong team. It will be difficult."
"I'm super excited to get in-season and see how we do against all of these tough SEC teams," Zogg said. "I'm a little nervous since I have never been in the team environment with tennis, and it's very different, but I'm very excited. Even in the fall, I felt like we really were a team with all of my teammates cheering for each other. We were so much more enthusiastic than all of the other teams with that, even though it was an individual season."
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