Last spring, the Stephen F. Austin women’s tennis team tied for the Southland Conference regular-season title with Nicholls State. The Lumberjacks had an overall 16-7 record and went 10-1 in conference before bowing out in the Southland Conference Tournament to New Orleans in an upset loss.
The road back to the top spot took a sharp detour this summer when head coach Roberto Aspillaga departed for UTEP in mid-July. The 2015 Southland Conference Freshman of the Year, Vivienne Kulicke of Hamburg Germany, also left to join the Miners. Kulicke was 10-0 in conference play in her initial college campaign, and her departure compounded SFA’s loss of All-Southland senior Malena Gordo to graduation.
The university turned east to quickly land an experienced coach in Jon McLaughlin. McLaughlin spent the spring 2015 season as an assistant at Tulane and in just a single year of work with the Green Wave helped engineer a turnaround from a 5-20 2014 mark to a 17-9 record in 2015. His extensive resume includes spending the 2009 season on the Dartmouth staff that helped guide the team to its highest ranking and win total in program history.
“I got here 10 days before the start of classes,” said McLaughlin. “It was too good of an opportunity for me to pass up, so I had to jump at it and get here and hit the ground running.”
He did just that. At the time of his arrival, SFA did not have the Division I minimum of six roster players. McLaughlin was able to sign talented freshman Liza Aginskaya from Ukraine to not only hit the minimum but add quality talent to the lineup
SFA opened this fall season with a trip to Houston for the Rice Invitational. Overall the team produced a 12-12 match record during the three-day tournament against a talented 11-team field that included Texas, Baylor and host Rice in its ranks. SFA showed well overall by capturing the first and second doubles brackets. The final singles matches were cancelled due to rain.
Aginskaya quickly proved a good “get” by McLaughlin, as she produced a 2-1 record in doubles in her first collegiate tennis. In the process, however, she suffered a fluke injury, fracturing a finger during competition.
“She’s just out there playing a match and it hits her on the wrong spot on the finger,” McLaughlin said. Fortunately, she won’t need surgery and the team expects to have her back in the lineup for the spring season. Between the fall and spring SFA will also look to add two players to get to achieve its ideal roster of eight and to match the number of available scholarships.
Despite the setbacks, there remains solid veteran talent in Nacogdoches. Valeria Terentyeva of St. Petersburg, Russia, earned All-Southland second team doubles honors this past spring and returns, as does fellow senior Dhanielly Quevedo of Caracas, Venezuela. Quevedo is a 2014 transfer from the University of Colorado and made an immediate impact in 2015 when she was named the Southland’s Newcomer of the Year.
She is a talented dual-threat for SFA, garnering an 11-8 overall singles record in her first year on campus and a 14-7 mark in doubles play.
Tennis is predominantly an individual sport. While doubles play requires teamwork and coordination, at the professional level individual matches garner much more attention. What then at the college level makes for effective teamwork among a group of individual players? Quevedo did not hesitate in her answer when it came to SFA.
“Obviously tennis is an individual sport so you don’t really grow up playing as part of a team,” she said. “Something that I found here was that we take care of the little things: spending time together as a team, caring for each other, and spending time with each other off the court. It’s not 6-7 individuals united who just call themselves a team, we are a team.”
Despite their conference title last spring, SFA finds itself this fall in a uniquely critical phase of forging their upcoming season very early, and very quickly.
“Sometimes that’s actually a good position to be in where you don’t have options, and you just have to put your head down and go to work,” said McLaughlin.
It’s a sentiment befitting an athletic program whose mascot is a lumberjack.
Above: Senior standout Dhanielly Quevedo returns to solidify the SFA lineup (Courtesy SFA Athletics)