FGCU’S TEN­NIS THE MEN­ACE

FU­TURE LOOKS BRIGHT FOR FGCU TEN­NIS

RSWLiving - - Cover Page - BY DAYNA HARPSTER

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

Some 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 20152016 sea­son that the women should take good care of them­selves.

Ver­non 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.”

Once 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,” Hen­shon 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.

A shot is made by FGCU women’s cap­tain El­iz­a­beth Means. Court­ney Ver­non ( right) coaches her team dur­ing FGCU’s match

with Al­bany in March 2014.

Florida Gulf Coast Univer­sity men’s ten­nis team mem­bers pose on cam­pus. Coach C.J. We­ber watches the ac­tion dur­ing Septem­ber’s

Bed­ford Cup in­vi­ta­tional at the FGCU Ten­nis Com­plex ( right).

Brazil­ian Lu­cas Vaz cap­tains the men’s ten­nis team.

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