Triple threat: Tennis trio looks back

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AJ Neuharth-Keusch

Aneuharthkeus@Radford.Edu

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Seniors Taylor Newman, Gemma Valls, and Meg Napolitano have come a great distance both on and off the court since they laced up their shoes freshman year for RU women’s tennis.

     However with the 2014-2015 regular season over and the Big South tournament quickly approaching, it’s all but a matter of time before these three have played their final matches as Radford Highlanders.

     They currently have a 6-11 record and will face Longwood in the first round of the tournament on Wednesday, April 15.

     But the current 6-11 record isn’t the story here. Neither is the match against Longwood. The story is of three girls that came into a less than favorable situation and made a difference through determination and leadership.

     Let’s take a look back at where it all began in the 2011-2012 season.

     The trio was fresh out of high school and ready to join a team comprised of just one other freshman and three seniors. As you can expect, this made the challenge of becoming a division 1 college athlete just that much more difficult.

     “When I came in freshman year I had really no expectations. I didn’t know what was going to happen… the seniors really molded us well.”

     The three played the majority of their freshman seasons at the bottom of the lineup as the number four, five and six singles players.

     However, they proved that they were vital assets to the overall success of the team. Newman posted a 17-12 singles record, Valls went 17-6 and Napolitano went 22-7.

     The team as a whole went 17-7 overall, but losing three graduating players on a seven-player roster put all of the pressure on the shoulders of the three soon-to-be sophomores.

     Going into the ’12-’13 season, the roster was cut down to six players: Newman, Valls, Napolitano, and three new freshmen. The trio quickly became the veterans on the team despite being newcomers just one year before.

      They had to take on a leadership role much sooner than they ordinarily would but were able to rise to the occasion.

     “I don’t think I have a leadership personality, but without realizing it players have come up to me saying they look up to me,” Valls said.

     Newman and Valls moved up to the top-two spots in the lineup with Napolitano close behind playing the majority of her matches at the number four spot.

     However despite a solid showing on the court throughout the season, the team only managed to reach a 7-16 record.

     Heading into the 2013-2014 season, the trio was faced with another challenge after adapting to their leadership roles: a new head coach.

     Martin Sayer – the all-time winningest player in Radford men’s tennis history (2009) – took over the reins as coach for the Highlanders. It was undoubtedly a solid acquisition, but a young head coach combined with a young team was just another obstacle to face.

“We’ve been through coaching changes, we’ve been through players coming and leaving. Gemma, Meg and I have been through a lot over the past four years, but we’ve excelled and we’ve done better than we thought we would,” Newman said.

     The trio banded together along with Coach Sayer to record a much-improved 10-13 regular season record.

     “Us being here has helped Martin in a sense because we knew what was going on and he had no idea coming in, so he looked to us for help,” Newman said.

     “We’ve been good role models,” Newman continued. “We’ve always showed up to practice, we’ve been to every match, we’ve done well off the court academically…we’ve tried to be an example for the rest of the team.”

     In addition to her success on the court, Newman was selected to the Big South All-Academic team in 2013 and 2014.

     Napolitano also spoke about leadership, crediting the rest of her teammates for their respected leadership roles.

     “Being able to have such supportive teammates has really helped Gemma, Taylor and I build our leadership skills we have embraced throughout the years here at RU,” she said.

     With the ride nearing it’s ending point, the girls have made sure to leave their teammates with some words of advice.

     “You play individually in tennis but you have to remember that it’s a team sport,” Newman said. “If you lose but the team wins, your loss doesn’t really matter that much because you still won as a team.”

     “Have fun,” Valls added. “These four years have been super fast…Enjoy every moment with the team, having fun as a team, and putting effort in everything you do in school and on the tennis court. If you try your best and have fun you cannot go wrong.”

     The trio made sure to stress that they’re not done playing just yet. Their focus is on the Big South tournament.

     “Even though our results haven’t been the best this year, I still feel like we have a really strong team compared to last year,” Valls said. “Everyone says ‘the team you have now is the best you’ve ever had’ but then the results haven’t really shown it, so maybe the Big South Tournament will be the last chance to show that we can really do better.”

     “Us three as seniors just want to give it our all because it’s our last big south tournament, these will be our last matches,” Newman said.

     “I love my teammates,” Napolitano added. “I will always have be thankful for everything I have experienced being a student athlete here at Radford University.”