Amazing what the threat of having to spend one’s own money can do to the maturity level of a teenager.
“I was probably 14 when I started taking tennis seriously,” said University of Tennessee at Chattanooga sophomore Jenna Nurik. “My parents told me if I ever broke a racket [in anger] I’d have to buy the next one myself. They also said they’d consider pulling me out [of competitive tennis].”
Duly warned, Nurik is yet to break her first racket or throw her first fit, which are at least two reasons why UTC’s No. 1 player won the Southern Conference Sportsmanship Award one day before the men’s and women’s league tournaments were to begin this morning at the Champions Club.
“Jenna plays the game with a lot of class,” UTC women’s coach Jeff Clark said Tuesday. “She plays with fairness and competes hard. Win or lose, she carries herself the same way, which is sometimes hard to do.”
Budget cuts, coaching changes and an ever-improving SoCon have made it hard for the Lady Mocs to return to the top of a league they once dominated. But their 11-10 overall record and 6-4 conference mark assure them of finishing .500 or better for the year for the first time since 2003.
Beyond that, as a No. 5 seed they’ve earned a bye for today’s opening round and won’t face fourth-seeded Samford until 8:30 a.m. Thursday, weather permitting.
The UTC men, however, received a No. 9 seed after going 2-8 in league action and 7-15 overall and will face No. 8 seed Georgia Southern at 2 p.m. today at Champions.
“Hopefully, playing in this facility will relax us a little more,” said Mocs coach Carlos Garcia, now in his 10th season. “We’re still the lowest seed (No. 7) to ever get to a final under this format. Maybe we can break our own record this year.”
Mocs sophomore Roberto Vieira was a first-team all-conference choice for the second year in a row, after going 12-11 in singles with an 8-7 record at No. 1 this spring. He was 5-3 in SoCon matches.
Nurik’s record was 17-14 overall, 12-9 at No. 1 and 5-5 in league duals. More impressively, she’s won three of her last four singles matches heading into this week.
“I’m pretty competitive,” the Roswell, Ga., native said. “But I’ve tried to cut down on some of my actions this year.”
Actions? From the SoCon’s newly crowned sportsmanship winner?
“Sometimes last year I’d scream, ‘C’mon!’” she explained, as if there’s something wrong with that. “Or I’d do double fist pumps. Or stare at my opponents. But not this year.”
Then again, this is a girl whose mother wants her to “play like Chris Evert,” which pretty much means being the most respectful, gracious, decent competitor ever.
Not that Nurik — who also was second-team all-conference after being SoCon freshman of the year in 2010 — is the only reason to admire these Lady Mocs. Freshman Alexa Flynn was named to the all-freshman team. Heck, Nurik isn’t even the team’s only sportsmanship winner, senior teammate and Girls Preparatory School grad Grace Robinette having claimed the honor in 2009.
“It all starts with Coach Clark,” Nurik said. “It’s the environment he’s created here. He’s always reminding us: ‘It’s not that you win, it’s the WAY you win.’”
Perhaps that’s why the first words out of Nurik’s mouth when asked to describe her feelings on winning the award were: “I think it’s more of a credit to our team. Any of us could have won it.”
Most of us could be better people than we are. We could apply ourselves more than we do, be more like Nurik and Flynn, for instance, who carry 3.8 and 3.4 GPAs.
We could also overcome adversity better, something Lady Mocs junior and No. 3 player Emily Hangstefer has pretty much done all her life, given that the Signal Mountain native is legally deaf.
Asked what it was like to lose her match to fellow Chattanoogan Sarah Evans earlier this year when the Lady Mocs won every other match in a 6-1 victory over Wofford — which is coached by Emily’s sister and UTC grad Katie Hangstefer — Emily said, “I told [Katie] how upset I was. She said, ‘Tough luck.’”
Of course, Katie also hasn’t attempted to play against Emily for the past five or six years, ever since Emily last beat her.
Whether the Lady Mocs and Mocs can avoid enough tough luck to win their SoCon tourneys on home soil remains to be seen.
But as Nurik’s sportsmanship award proved Tuesday, sometimes it’s a parent’s tough love that best teaches life’s lessons.
Unless it’s the coaching of Clark, who said of his preference for having all-conference players or sportsmanship winners: “Probably sportsmanship, because that’s a sign that you have people who are representing the university the right way.”
Not to mention saving lots of money on replacement tennis rackets.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...