Panthers Reach Higher Than Ever in Historic Season
Overall Record: 13-9
Home: 7-1 Away: 2-5 Neutral: 4-3
Sun Belt Championship: 1st place (3-0 record)
NCAA Team Tournament: First round, def. No. 31 Tennessee 4-3; Second round, lost to No. 7 North Carolina 4-0
NCAA Singles Tournament: First round, Abigail Tere-Apisah def. Eve Repic, Tennessee 7-6(4), 6-2; Second round, Abigail Tere-Apisah def. Zsofi Susanyi, California, 7-6(3), 6-1; Third round, Abigail Tere-Apisah def. Kristie Ahn, Stanford, 6-3, 1-0, ret. inj.; National Quarterfinals, Abigail Tere-Apisah def. Beatrice Capra, Duke, 4-6, 6-3, 6-1; National Semifinals, Lynn Chi, California def. Abigail Tere-Apisah, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6(2).
Final ITA Singles Ranking: No. 15 Abigail Tere-Apisah
Sun Belt Awards: Coach of the Year - Robin Stephenson; Player of the Year - Abigail Tere-Apisah
All-Sun Belt First Team: Abigail Tere-Apisah (singles, doubles), Masa Grgan (doubles), Marcia Tere-Apisah (doubles), Tarani Kamoe (doubles)
All-Sun Belt Second Team: Linn Timmermann (singles)
Sun Belt Player-of-the-Week Award: Abigail Tere-Apisah (Feb. 5, 12, 19, 26)
GSU Blue Carpet Awards: Female Student-Athlete of the Year – Abigail Tere-Apisah; All-Academic Team – Masa Grgan
Looking back on the 2013-14 season, it’s difficult to know where to start when talking about the Georgia State women’s tennis team. There was so much – both individually and as a team – that the program accomplished, and it should have been easy to see it coming. What wasn’t easy to see was the path it would take to get there.
Entering the season, the Panthers had a great mix of veteran leadership and fresh talent. In the summer of 2013, there was already an air of excitement for the season throughout the team. Nothing seemed to change despite the loss of then-head coach Miha Lisac in August as he left for West Virginia to lead the Big 12 progam.
Considering the late date, assistant coach Robin Stephenson stepped into the roll as interim head coach, and the Panthers set course on the most historic season in program history. Along the way, Georgia State set several program firsts and by May, became arguably the most decorated women’s team in school history. The short list of memorable moments included:
- Becoming the first female team in school history to advance in the NCAA Championship
- Knocking off the highest-ranked opponent ever – twice
- Putting two doubles teams in the national rankings on the same week
- Getting the programs’ first win in doubles play in the NCAA Championship
- Senior Abigail Tere-Apisah’s amazing run to the national singles semifinals and second All-America honor which made her the most decorated female athlete in Georgia State history
- Earning the highest final singles and doubles rankings in program history, along with the second-highest team finish
Stephenson, who had the interim tag removed in June and will head into 2014-15 as head coach, said she thought the Panthers could have a very good year, but no one could be fully prepared for the historic moments they actually encountered.
“With the players we had coming in and the returners we had coming back, I think we were pretty cofnident and knew we could have a good year especially with the way our schedule was set up,” Stephenson said. “The schedule was pretty challenging. It was a good mix of playing some top-40 teams to kind of set us up being put through a test early. And by the time we got to the end part of the season, we were playing better, and that was the plan. It worked out pretty well.”
That may be a bit of an understatement.
Georgia State played four top-40 teams before the end of February and came away with the biggest upset in program history to that point when it upset No. 35 Columbia at home. The Panthers won the doubles point without their top tandem of Tere-Apisah and Masa Grgan, who were ranked No. 33 nationally but fell to the No. 32-ranked pair of Bianca Sanon and Kanika Vaidya. Instead, Marcia Tere-Apisah and Kamoe Tarani at No. 2 and Linn Timmerman and Chaimaa Roudami at No. 3 secured the point. Grgan picked up one of her few singles victories at No. 2 (against No. 57 Vaidya in straight sets) and Maryna Kozachenko won at No. 5 singles before Abigail Tere-Apisah powered past Sanon in three sets to clinch the victory.
That was the only win against a ranked team in the regular season, although several of the other contests were close and could have went either way. It was that play that kept the team’s hopes up that it was progressing as planned.
“They took some belief from those losses,” Stephenson said. “They started working harder and knew what it took to play at that level . It paid off at the end of the season when we played Tennessee because they thought ‘Hey we can do this. We’re not just going in trying to compete.’ ”
That was exactly the case in the final weeks of the season as Georgia State blew through the Sun Belt tournament. After finishing second in their conference tournament each of the previous three years, the Panthers crushed the field as it blew by UL Lafayette (4-0), Troy (4-0) and South Alabama (4-1) to win the league title and earn the program’s second berth into the NCAA Team Championship.
The matchup in the postseason could not have been better either as Georgia State was paired in the first round with a talented but young Tennessee squad. The Volunteers were ranked No. 31 despite playing up to six freshmen at different points. The timing was perfect for the upset, and in dramatic fashion, that’s exactly what Georgia State pulled off with a 4-3 win against UT in the first round of the NCAA Team Championship.
“I felt like there was something bigger out there for this team. I think the players really started to believe in it too,” Stephenson said. “It’s huge for the program and huge for the girls coming back to have that experience and know what it takes and what it’s like to beat a top-35 SEC team.
“It was definitely a jump forward but I don’t think it was anything that was just out of this world. We prepared for it, believed in it and expected it. We went into that match expecting to win. That kind of mentality will be huge carrying over to the next season and to give on to the new girls coming in. For the returners, for that to rub off on them will also be huge.”
Like its earlier win against Columbia, Georgia State won the doubles point against Tennessee without Abigail Tere-Apisah and Grgan’s help (they actually were upset), and this time took the final, victorious point when Roudami defeated Ambika Pande in three sets. The victory was momentous as no Panther women’s team had every advanced out of the first round of NCAA play in any sport.
Stephenson noted that it’s sometimes difficult for a new coach to understand the significance of certain milestones at a school, but she and the team were proud of the accomplishment.
“It means a lot to our players. They took a lot of pride [in being the first],” Stephenson said. “It started early in the season when they knew they broke a record by beating Columbia. Then it was them talking about this record or that milestone, and there was a buzz. They kind of bought into the idea of being a team that could achieve some firsts together. It was kind of cool seeing them come together and reach those goals.”
While much of the team success may have been unpredictable, one constant remained with the team throughout the fall and spring. Abigial Tere-Apisah played at such a high level that there was no question she had the right stuff to still be playing at the end of May.
Already an All-American after reaching the third round of the NCAA Singles Championship as a sophomore in 2012, Tere-Apisah did little to disappoint. She rolled to 32 singles wins on the season, a school record, and was the Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year. She was named first-team All-Sun Belt in both singles and doubles (with Grgan), and after winning her first two matches at the NCAA Singles Championship in Athens, Ga., she became the second Panther in any sport to earn All-America honors twice in her career. And she was just warming up.
After the first round, Tere-Apisah was facing top-ranked players the rest of the way, and the result remained consistent: with a strong will, incredible conditioning and steady game, she knocked off three straight seeded players from the SEC (Texas A&M), Pac-12 (Stanford, No. 3 overall seed), and ACC (Duke, No. 5 overall seed) to become the first Panther to reach an NCAA semifinal. He ability was on display like never before and she stood up to take advantage like Stephenson expected.
“When I started here a couple years ago, I knew she was capable of a lot,” Stephenson said. “She obviously did a lot in the spring season, but when we played All-Americans in the fall or national indoors and I think she got a little bit intimidated and didn’t really believe. She knew she was good and belonged in the tournament, but I don’t know if she believed she could win the tournament or make a big run.
“But I think it really started last fall at indoors when she got a few good wins in a row and she started to think ‘I can do this.’ Going into nationals, she had only lost a couple matches all spring, and she was confident. Things just kind of came together. She was determined to go out on top her senior year.”
The Panthers, in general, came together in 2013-14 like never before, making for a magical dash through the season that may take quite a while to match. But with the returning talent and incoming fresh faces, they hope to give another run at the record book.