Last season, the College of Coastal Georgia women's tennis team wasn't eligible for postseason play because the college was a new member of the NAIA.
Even had they been eligible, the Mariners wouldn't have been a contender for the national tournament. The Mariners were forced to play the entire season with just four players after losing several players for a number of reasons prior to the season.
But now just a year removed from a difficult season in which they somehow managed to win four of their 16 matches despite having to forfeit three points every time they took the court, the Mariners are getting set to compete on Tuesday in the NAIA Women's Tennis National Championships in Mobile, Ala., in their first season of eligibility.
That's not something many people would have predicted especially following a coaching change before the start of the spring season.
The returning nucleus of players still had to mesh with the newcomers and everyone had to get on the same page with new coach Kemper Baker who joined the team in late January.
It helped that the Mariners had some talent and assistant coach Steve Howard kept the team together during the transition. But still, that doesn't answer why the Mariners were able to make the turnaround so quickly.
But when Baker was asked that very question last week before leaving with the team for nationals, it didn't take him long to provide an answer.
"Our women's team, plain and simple, outworks everyone else," Baker said. "No one works harder than them. They work all day long. It's that simple. It really is. It's hard work and lots of hours."
The time and effort has certainly paid off. The No. 16-ranked Mariners will face off against No. 17 Indiana Wesleyan in an opening-round match at 2 p.m. Tuesday at the Mobile Tennis Center. The winner will advance to Wednesday's quarterfinals where it will face top-ranked and top-seeded Xavier (La.), which earned a bye in the first round as one of the top eight seeds in the championship.
It didn't take Baker long after he started working with the Mariners to realize he had a highly-motivated and driven group of players that were hungry for success, especially those who played last season when the odds were stacked against the Mariners before the first serve of any match.
He laid out a plan, which including voluntary training sessions with coaches outside of team practices, and the players followed the script.
It didn't take long for the Mariners to start seeing the fruits of their labor, if you will. On March 2, Coastal Georgia hosted No. 15 Lee University for just its second-ever match in the ultra-tough Southern States Athletic Conference, and the Mariners picked up a decisive 7-2 victory that day against their nationally-ranked opponent.
The following week, when the new national rankings came out, the Mariners debuted at No. 16 in the Top 25 poll, and they have been in the rankings ever since, climbing as high as No. 14 while playing against a tough schedule that featured several other teams that are competing this week including No. 2 Auburn-Montgomery and No. 3 Brenau University, which defeated the Mariners in the semifinals of the SSAC tournament.
Coastal Georgia enters the national championship event with an 8-8 record that includes four victories over teams that were ranked at the time.
"When you put the time in and train like our kids do, that's where confidence starts," Baker said. "You start to believe in your shots and your base fundamentals and that transitions into wins and things just snowball from there.
"For our players, when they tasted success, they didn't let off the gas. They wanted more success."
The Mariners will play with a lineup at nationals featuring four juniors, a sophomore and a freshman. The juniors are Elektra Hunter, who will play No. 1 singles, Priti Rijal, who plays No. 4 singles, Sunshine Beba (Marta Torrey Scholarship recipient), who is the team MVP and plays No. 5 singles, and Luisa Lopes, who will play No. 6 singles.
In doubles, the Mariners play Rijal and Faas at No. 1, Hunter and Polakovic at No. 2 and Beba and Lopes at No. 3.
Indiana Wesleyan is 22-3 for the season after finishing 1-2 in the pool play portion of last week's National Christian Conference Athletic Association national championship tournament which was also held in Mobile.
The Wildcats qualified for the NAIA tournament after winning the Crossroads League championship. They are making their 14th appearance in the tournament and have made it every year since the team format began in 2000.
Baker expects that the Wildcats will be a formidable foe.
"In the postseason, the quality of competition is going to be the highest level across the board," he said. "Everyone knows how to compete, they have depth, and therefore there are no easy matches."
Regardless of what happens this week in Mobile, Baker said the experience will be valuable for the players and also the overall program.
"Now, we have a talented group and they're all coming back which adds more experience," he said. "They'll have an opportunity to be successful from start to finish.
"I saw a lot of opportunity here when I looked into this job and thought we could compete on the national level in a couple of years on both our men's and women's teams, and when you actually do it that makes you a legit contender to go out and attract top prospects to your program."
|(6) Coastal Georgia vs||0|
|NAIA Men's Tennis National Championship Second Round|
|(11) Coastal Georgia vs||5|
|(RV) Asbury University||4|
|NAIA Men's Tennis National Championship|