MONROE, La. (Press Release) - Within the cozy locker room at Heard Stadium, written on the wall in green scrawl, the ULM women’s tennis team scripted its season.
A simple checklist among teammates with all their intentions spelled out materialized over the past few months. The latest and greatest accomplishment came on April 23 when ULM outlasted South Alabama 4-3 to win its first Sun Belt Conference championship.
“Being the first team to do it is nice and special,” said Stefana Andrei, who came to ULM from Bucharest, Romania, this season and owns an 11-2 record playing the number one position.
A steady stream of support and encouragement flowed ULM’s way since its triumphant return from the tournament in New Orleans. The entire squad even delivered “First Serve” against the backstop to open a recent ULM baseball game.
“Lots of calls, lots of emails and a lot of excitement around campus,” Sun Belt Coach of the Year Terrence De Jongh said. “People on campus congratulate you, invite you to events. It’s been great. ULM deserved this and the community deserved this as well.”
Said Andrei, “Mostly the athletes and the professors congratulate us. It’s nice to have people come and tell us, ‘good job.’”
Added freshman Karolina Snita, “Sometimes we don’t even know the people and they come to us with congratulations.”
Next up, ULM (16-1) will face No. 20 Texas A&M in the first round of the NCAA Women’s Tennis Championship on Saturday and Sunday, May 13-14. The field at Hurd Tennis Center in Waco, Texas, also includes No. 15 Baylor and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.
“We had a lot of emotions after we won conference,” Snita said. “But you have to bring your mind back. We have an even more important match now.”
De Jongh began his head coaching career at ULM in 2007 and guided the Warhawks into their first Sun Belt Conference campaign. Louisiana’s 2011 Coach of the Year and his assistants assembled the current roster of international talent and molded it into a winning machine that breezed through the conference play undefeated at 5-0.
“I can definitely say it’s just consistency,” De Jongh said on a recent afternoon after practice. “I’ve been here 10 years. My assistant R.J. Nagle has been here eight years. Fred Lemongo has been here five years. It doesn’t happen overnight.”
The all-international roster features players from Belgium, Romania, Poland, Slovakia and Spain. Recruiting players to Monroe from around the world is often a leap of faith for both parties.
“For me, it was important to go somewhere the tennis was on a high level,” Snita said. “When Coach R.J. texted me, I spoke to Stefana and she convinced me that they play very good tennis here and the coach is very involved. If you care about tennis, it’s a very good place to come.”
De Jongh sensed that 2017 could be a special season during ULM’s fall semester.
“Last spring we did something special,” De Jongh said. “We got to be nationally ranked with an all-freshman lineup. We had some girls out of the lineup that weren’t eligible or injured. We had to play with walk-ons last year and we did pretty well. Coming in the fall with the two that didn’t play last year plus the new additions we brought in, we knew we had something special. We knew we could get far.”
The players reported to campus in the spring more than a week before classes started and began practicing on the chilly courts.
“The hard work paid off,” De Jongh said. “There were some days the girls had to sacrifice quite a bit. Now they see that it was worth it with a championship.”
ULM opened the 2017 season with its lone loss to date, but even that setback to Auburn was encouraging as the Warhawks competed well against a team ranked 15th nationally.
Shortly after and at the suggestion of their assistant coach Nagel, it was Andrei who created the visual reminder of ULM’s ambitions. Prior to that, the student-athletes discussed it as a team and outlined their mission statements, declaring collectively, “We are a blue-collar team.”
“After one home game, we came in and wrote the goals on the wall,” Andrei said. “The goals were already there but we put them down.”
• Be a team.
• Try to get better every match.
• Beat Tulane, UTA and SMU.
• Win Conference, go to NCAA
• Work hard at every practice.
Notably the campaign included a 4-3 win over then-No. 40 Tulane on the same courts at Pepsi Center in New Orleans where the Warhawks would later win the Sun Belt title. ULM entered the ITA rankings at No. 50 following the victory.
A targeted match against Texas-Arlington was rained out but ULM did knock off SMU as scripted on its march toward the postseason.
“In the fall we knew we had something special but it’s not guaranteed,” De Jongh said. “When the season started, we knocked off Georgia State and they won the conference last year. Then we played Auburn close and it started building excitement right there. You keep on winning. You know the matches that are big.”
Being the class of the Sun Belt brought plenty of individual accolades for the team too.
Andrei earned Newcomer of the Year, All-Sun Belt first team as a singles player and was part of the All-Sun Belt second team in doubles with senior Petra Horakova. Sophomore Tiffany Mylonas made the All-Sun Belt singles team for the second time, collecting a first-team nod. Along with her doubles team recognition, Horakova also earned second-team honors for her singles play. De Jongh is the Sun Belt Coach of the Year.
Located across the dressing room is the trophy ULM claimed in New Orleans, propped on a shelf beside the lockers. No doubt at some point the coaching staff needed to pry it away from Horakova, a feisty competitor who clutched the prized hardware all the way home. A three-time all-conference player, Horakova takes a 16-0 mark into the NCAA fray.
“In the van coming back from the tournament to Monroe, she was holding the trophy next to her the whole way,” De Jongh said. “It was like her baby right there next to her. Nobody wants to play her. She leaves everything out on the court.”
The last goal on the wall, “Sweet 16,” is written in black and added by Andrei after returning with the Sun Belt trophy.
“I couldn’t find the green marker,” Andrei said with a laugh.
To check off that next goal, ULM will need to advance past a strong pool in Waco, beginning with Texas A&M.
“We can win these first two matches,” Andrei said. “But we have to work hard and believe in ourselves.”
And what if ULM reaches the Sweet 16?
“If we make it,” Andrei said, “that’s another goal that we have to add. Step by step.”