For the past three years, most of the tennis articles you’ve seen in The Daily Evergreen had my name in the byline. But I have a confession to make: this is the first time I will tell you the actual story of the real WSU tennis team.
With my final coverage as an objective reporter coming in this issue’s Pac-12 championship recap, I can finally and ethically tell you the personal story of Cougar tennis instead of the professional one.
Beyond the names and numbers is a larger tale; one of leadership, friendship, hard work and both individual sacrifice and personal responsibility.
We see a lot of stories on ESPN these days about shady Division-I college programs. But somewhere between the scandals of Terrelle Prior and Jerry Sandusky we have forgotten to tell both sides of the collegiate athlete story.
There are some Division-I athletes who haven’t taken money from greedy agents and seedy alumni.
There are some who take their class schedule as seriously as their regular season schedule. There are even some who truly believe in putting their teammates before themselves because they authentically care that deeply about them.
These are the kind of student athletes you will find in the WSU tennis locker room. On a roster that features five Russians, two Americans, one Dutch and one Canadian, there is a wonderfully surprising culture of unity surrounding Cougar tennis.
The existence of this culture starts with Head Coach Lisa Hart and her trusty assistant (and former Cougar tennis star) Ekaterina Burduli. I couldn’t have asked for better coaches to work with during the last three years.
Anytime I told them I needed an interview on short notice, they’d do everything in their power to get back to me. In three years they never made me feel like I was some dumb kid taking up their precious time.
They always greeted me with enthusiasm and treated me with respect. Anything I’ve ever heard their players say about them confirms that they take the same approach to coaching.
This example is followed, and the results have shown this season, as the No. 31 Cougars will make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2008. This is not the result of a lot of individually talented tennis players, although the women Hart brings into her program are very talented. But more than that, it is the result of girls who show up to practice and class on time and work their tails off when they get there.
It is the result of Hart bringing in not just quality athletes, but quality human beings. I’ve had some opportunities to talk with most of the players on the team off the record, and let me tell you, I only wish I could have had more.
The culture shock of Pullman was plenty for me, and I came just a thousand miles from my hometown in Wyoming. For a lot of Cougar tennis players, an entire ocean separates them from everything they’ve ever known.
It is a team of orphans that have banded together to form a very close family. This rare and special bond is what underachieving teams filled with talent are always missing. It is the power of authentic relationships. And like life, in sports, authentic relationships are the only true path to success.