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Catch a Match - Future looks bright for FGCU tennis

Jan 01, 2016 12:04PM ● Published by Kevin

Vince Lombardi famously said, “Confidence is contagious. So is lack of confidence.” Lombardi was all about football, but we’re willing to guess it applies to other sports―and life―as well. So it makes sense that when teams from Florida Gulf Coast University start winning, stirring up crowds and bringing new fans to the fold, confidence starts really cooking and “your team” gets hot also.

“The athletic department is one big family,” says FGCU women’s tennis team captain Elizabeth Means. “Every time a team wins, we all get a lot of energy from that. When a team does well, it boosts us too.”

Recent records bear that out.

Getting ready for spring conference play, the men’s and women’s tennis teams are on the heels of their best season in university history in 2014-2015. The men finished as conference winners; the women ranked second. Neither is a small feat. In Florida, competition on college courts is notoriously fierce.

But for things to heat up and confidence to take hold, the teams must first be healthy. The right environment and coach can deliver if there are talent, effort, dedication and teamwork.

“We’ve been fortunate to have inherited a very successful group of coaches and student athletes,” notes athletic director Ken Kavanaugh, who has been at FGCU for seven years. “We’ve been able to move together with the success we’ve had.”

What that means for FGCU tennis is that the future’s looking bright.

The tennis season is really two: fall and spring. Invitationals dominate the calendar for fall; team-on-team matchups take over in spring. Fall is for leaf peeping among athletes, too. That’s when they show their true colors, before they branch out into spring matches that count toward conference standings. Coaches try out doubles’ pairs to see which combinations work best.

The Heat Is Hard

Bedford Cup Day 2Some athletes who arrive from different climates must adjust to the brutality of Southwest Florida summers. And the punishment of summer hits home even among acclimated athletes. FGCU men’s and women’s tennis players, like those at other Division 1 NCAA schools, can and do spend the maximum two and a half hours per day in tennis workouts, followed by one more hour of gym-based fitness work.

By now, men’s team captain Lucas Vaz, a senior from Sao Paulo, Brazil, has adjusted to the time outside. But transferring from the courts at the first U.S. college he attended (in Oklahoma) to become an FGCU Eagle his sophomore year, wasn’t easy. “I struggled a lot my first semester,” Vaz explains. “Florida was the only place I ever played where it was really humid. You need to be really tough mentally.”

Even seasoned Floridians have issues with heat. “We’ve had some girls cramp up this year,” says women’s coach Courtney Vernon, who stressed even more than usual at the start of the 2015-2016 season that the women should take good care of themselves.

FGCU v Albany 03232014Vernon is in her third year coaching the women’s team. A native of Ohio, she previously was an assistant coach at the University of South Florida and Colgate University. At age 10, she announced to her parents that she was going to play at Wimbledon one day.

Although she didn’t get quite that far, Vernon moved to Florida at 16 to live with and train with her coach. She was later a tennis standout and sociology major at the University of South Florida. After graduation, she turned pro for a short time before returning to USF to coach.

When she started at FGCU, few people had heard of the school. In fact, until spring 2013 when the men’s basketball team unexpectedly beat San Diego State and landed a spot in the Sweet Sixteen, “the upstart university was about as familiar as Drizella and Anastasia Tremaine,” wrote an ESPN sportswriter, conjuring up Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters.

Recognition Is Motivation

The underdog story captured the country’s attention. “Now, everybody knows about us and it’s really fun. We get stopped in airports,” Vaz adds.

“Words cannot describe how motivating that environment is―to be surrounded by so much success,” says C.J. Weber, enjoying his fifth year as men’s head coach. “It’s building the reputation of the entire athletic department.”

mentennis1Once ears were tuned to the frequency of FGCU, including the women’s basketball team’s third Atlantic Sun Conference championship and third trip to the NCAA tournament last year, they seem to be following other Eagle sports as well. The men’s tennis team’s success has been noticed. “Since we won the conference last year, I’ve noticed a change in how recruits see our program. It’s really been interesting,” reports Weber.

Winning awards hasn’t hurt. Last year, senior Jordi Vives was named conference Player of the Year―again, and to the All-Conference team. He turned pro after last year but stayed on as a student coach until graduation in December.

Weber has coached 16 A-Sun All-Conference picks since arriving at FGCU. He was Coach of the Year last year as well. Weber previously was assistant coach at the University of Miami for nine years.

The need to succeed has spread to Vernon’s players as well. “Watching the men’s (tennis) team win the conference last year fueled the girls. They’re hungry,” she says.

No matter where she goes, Vernon nearly always wears team colors and Eagle tennis logos, she explains. People stop her and ask questions, talk sports. They talk tennis. The game’s popularity in Florida engenders the community support so vital to a growing university and its teams.

And that’s just the way both Vernon and Weber want it. “Part of the vision I’ve had for this program is to grow our relationship with the community of Southwest Florida,” Weber adds.

Athletic director Kavanaugh praises the coaches for their synergy. Their teams are supportive of one another.

That’s not always easy in tennis, where so much emphasis is on the prowess of the individual player. “In tennis you’re used to being an individual,” says women’s captain Means. Encouraging the other team members to come to her or other senior players with questions is one of her leadership goals.

Both coaches talk emphatically about the importance of character, about dedication not only to sport but also academics. That message is being received, it seems. The women have finished the past two years with scholarship achievements of a 3.5 grade point average or higher. Weber’s team has won honors academically, also, amassing a 3.49 grade point average for the 2014-15 spring term.

Court Time

On a late September weekend at the FGCU Tennis Complex, the differences between “Dunk City” and tennis territory are quite clear. On the Friday afternoon of the three-day 2015 Men’s Bedford Cup invitational―in which all 11 A-Sun tennis teams from Florida are together for singles and doubles matches―there are few, if any, attendees not affiliated with the teams. Several sets of bleachers are scattered among the courts. They are sparsely populated on Friday and not much more densely on Saturday. Some parents and grandparents watch quietly. All spectators speak in hushed tones. There are no rousing fight songs, alma maters, chants or cheers. That fact renders audible a player’s “unngh” of effort preceding the thwock! of a solidly hit volley.

The “scoreboard” is a column attached to a pole on the net with a tennis ball for each side. The balls are placed into vertical slots to represent the number of points each player has.

A Glance Over the Shoulder

It was nearly impossible to buy a T-shirt at the campus bookstore during that all-about-basketball week in March 2013, instructor Sue Henshon wrote in an opinion piece published in late September in The News-Press. But “Dunk City” doesn’t end with hoops, she contended. Students can soak up the “Dunk City” juice simply by enrolling in FGCU.

“Remember, the Cinderella tale isn’t over,” she wrote. “ … our trip to the NCAA tournament is fresh in people’s minds. The spirit of FGCU flies as high as an eagle, and this time, instead of just watching it on TV, you can be part of it too.”

On the same subject, men’s coach Weber is succinct: “The best is yet to come at FGCU.”

For more information about FGCU tennis, including dates and locations of matches, go to fgcuathletics.com.   

Written by Dayna Harpster, a writer living in Southwest Florida.

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