International City, Indeed for Tennis
International City, Indeed
Jennifer Hilt-Costello was an excellent tennis player at UCLA who as a senior was ranked ninth nationally in singles and the Bruin team captain. Great forehand, dynamic serve, powerful volley.
But her best weapon as Long Beach State's tennis coach has been her passport.
The team that has won five Big West titles in the last six years and moved into the national rankings alongside the Trojans and Bruins has used a steady stream of foreign players to build the program to this level, and no season underscores that fact more than the talented 2008 squad.
The four returning veterans hail from England, France and Australia, and the four new freshmen come from England, Australia and Germany. It's the U.N. of college tennis programs. When the new Rhodes Tennis Center opens next year on campus, it hopefully will include extra flagpoles so Hilt-Costello can fly the home flags of her players alongside the American and California flags.
Hilt-Costello didn't take the job for the 1997-1998 season with an eye on Europe or any other country. She set a goal to build the program into a nationally ranked team that would contend for its conference title each year. Her imports just happened to make it possible.
This year's team is led by two juniors from England, Hannah Grady (Coventry) and Jessica Weeks (Beckenham), and two seniors, Emmanuelle Tabatruong, from Bagneaux, France, and Stephanie Bengson, from Albion Park, Australia.
They're following the path blazed the last six years by sisters Anastasia and Alena Dvornikova (Russia), Laura Thomas and Rachel Porsz (England), Claudia Argumendo (El Salvador), Alanah Carroll and Nicolle Bouffler (Australia) and Alena Kovalchuk (Ukraine).
"Those kids led us to the national rankings and it would have been more difficult without them," Hilt-Costello said. "They enabled us to have some fast success. And because of this success, we're starting to turn the heads of the better players in Southern California. They're starting to look at Long Beach as someplace they'd like to play."
The four returning players all have similar stories. In the beginning, it wasn't easy to leave home and they had to deal with skeptical or torn parents. Now, they believe they made the best possible choice and are thrilled and grateful to be here.
"It was hard for my parents at first, but they realized it the best decision for me," Tabatruong, the 5-5 senior and international business major, said. "In France, there's nothing like this (college athletics), so your decision is school or tennis. Coming here allowed me to do both."
"It was my choice and my parents supported it," Grady, the lithe, tenacious No. 1 player who was the top-ranked junior in England in 2001, said. "It was difficult because you can't just go home for the weekend, but my parents come out as often as they can.
"This has been great for me. California is so different than England in being liberal and open-minded and friendly. I would never have this kind of experience if I had stayed home."
Weeks, a junior 5-11 left-hander and former junior doubles champ, said her parents were wary because they didn't know if she would fit in.
"But my parents are both teachers so they understood the academic opportunity and that I could fulfill my college and sports dreams at the same time," she said.
"We don't have college sports at home, and a lot of young players look at America and wish they could have that kind of experience. So this was an opportunity that just wasn't available. Plus, tennis is passive in England. There's good energy and passion here; people really love sports in America. So I've embraced that even more."
There's no denying that having eight girls on the team with common backgrounds has helped create a lot of team spirit and friendship.
"When I first came here, there weren't as many (foreign players), so it was a little different," Tabatruong said. "But it's so true at this school that people make you feel comfortable. I've been able to help the other girls coming from other countries get settled and introduce them to the school."
"Everyone being from other countries definitely makes us stick together," Bengson, the powerful 5-10 senior who led her Australian high school team to national championships, said.
"Everyone arrived without knowing much about the city or country, but there's always been someone here to help. We all look out for each other. Most of us don't drive - the whole other side of the street thing is so different - so it's walk, bike or bus, and we do a lot of things together."
"We all came here as tennis players who wanted to make a difference for the team," Grady said. "It's just a coincidence that we're all foreigners. But that's good in a way, because we've become very close."
"I think what's really been special is that they've embraced everything, the work that we demand from them, the experience of being a student-athlete, and setting high standards everywhere," Hilt-Costello said. "These are motivated, hard-working young ladies."
The tennis squad has had the highest GPA of all 49er sports teams for the last four years, and five of six players who began the school year in September are carrying a 4.0 GPA.
Right now, the team is fixated on becoming a stronger team and taking the team to the next level - a higher national rank and deeper in the NCAA tournament. The 49ers beat San Diego 6-1 last weekend, play at USC today and host No. 6 Cal Saturday at their temporary home at El Dorado Park.
"It's fantastic," said Weeks. "We've got four new girls who are very good. We're going to be very strong in doubles and deep 1-to-6, so deep that it will be difficult to decide who plays where.
"I really want to take everything I've embraced here back to England with me so I can share it with others."
Which should also help keep the pipelines across the Atlantic and Pacific wide open.