USD WOMEN’S TENNIS PROGRAM A MELTING POT
It’s hard not to notice how much fun Shani Blecher and Colomba DiFilippo are having on a sun-splashed afternoon at USD’s Skip and Cindy Hogan Tennis Center. The uniform row of hardcourts adjacent to their position in the stands reverberates with the metronomic beat of ball meeting racquet as their women’s tennis teammates hone their skills during an off-season practice session, but the two friends are busy talking story, and that’s clearly much more interesting than watching forehand volley drills.
The conversation is so very co-ed; classes, pending exams, trips to the beach and a planned outing downtown to sample a new restaurant are brought up in no particular order, and the constant giggling and ease with which they move from one talking point to the next suggests they’ve been pals since preschool. The fact that their respective hometowns of Shoham, Israel and Santiago, Chile are nearly 8,000 miles apart throws a giant monkey wrench in that theory, however — much to the delight of USD Women’s Tennis Head Coach Sherri Stephens.
“We really try to create a family environment with this team, especially when considering that a lot of our players are far, far away from home,” she says. “I think it’s critically important to make that transition as smooth as possible.”
With more than three decades of experience helming the Torero tennis program, Stephens has earned her share of frequent flier miles searching the globe for talents like Blecher and DiFilippo. Along the way, she’s learned that coaching internationally born-and-raised players successfully requires a delicate balance of discipline and empathy.
“Most of them are experiencing major culture shock when they arrive, and it’s really important that they understand and embrace our team concept. But you also need to be aware that these are young women who more than likely have never been this far away from home, and occasionally just need a shoulder to cry on.”
Stephens relays a story about a player she recruited from Ireland who would write the number of days she had left before she could return home on her hand; rubbing off and updating the figure every 24 hours. “I was sure I was going to lose her when she went home for the holidays, but she came back and never looked back. She ended up becoming a leader on the team, and one of my best friends.”
The 2014-15 roster could easily be mistaken for a United Nations delegation, as five of the world’s seven continents are represented. That type of diversity is exactly what Stephens is looking for, on a variety of levels. “I love the idea that USD is a place where student athletes from all over the world can come and get an amazing education to complement their athletic experience. I think it’s what the university is all about.” — Mike Sauer
Pictured above from left to right are Head Coach Sherri Stephens, Mikayla Morkel-Brink, Marta Stojanovic, Colomba DiFilippo, Shani Blecher and Dana Oppinger.