Four seasons ago, the Maryland women’s tennis team barely existed. There weren’t enough players to put a full team on the court and a first-time head coach was entering her first season at the helm.
This year’s seniors committed to a program that had virtually nothing. Four years later, they carried the team to the program’s second-most overall wins in a season, a program-high 16 victories in the spring, the most conference wins in over 40 years, the program’s first-ever All-Big Ten selection and outstanding doubles play.
The Terps captured five doubles tournament championships in the fall and won 19 of 21 doubles points on the year. The senior duo of Alexandra Stanova and Kristina Hovsepyan qualified for Intercollegiate Tennis Association Indoor Championships in the fall.
“It was awesome,” coach Daria Panova told Testudo Times. “The last time I’d been there was 2004 when I made it as a senior. You’re playing at Flushing Meadows, where the U.S. Open is played. It’s a great facility and the best teams in the country. It kind of tests your ability but it also puts Maryland on the map.”
For the second consecutive season, the team earned a top-five seed in the Big Ten Tournament. Maryland is certainly on the women’s tennis map, and things are looking up in College Park.
But it wasn’t always so great.
‘There was nothing’
When Panova arrived before the 2012 season, the program was in disarray. There were only three tennis players on the roster. Welma Luus, who’s also on the field hockey team, had just had shoulder surgery, Vroni Van Berlo was a graduating senior, and Sarah Gealer was about to transfer.
“There was nothing. It was difficult. When I got here, we had basically two people on the team that could play,” Panova said. “So we needed to recruit a lot of people very soon, and those four seniors right now were where it all began.”
Of course, recruiting a good class is easier said than done.
When Hovsepyan came on her visit, all the way from California, Panova had only been here for a few weeks and didn’t know her way around campus yet. With hardly any players to show recruits around, that responsibility fell squarely on her shoulders. It didn’t go so well. Ironically, the trip from campus back to the airport is what sealed the deal.
“We’re in the car and I was like, ‘Kristina, look. It is what it is. It’s my first year coaching. We don’t have any players. But trust me: I want to win a national championship. I want you here because you can help us,’” Panova said.
That was all it took.
“I don’t know what it was, but I kind of just knew when I got here for my visit,” Hovsepyan said. “It was just that feeling.”
And while her visit was hectic and filled with wrong turns, at least she had one. Stanova never even saw campus before taking the leap of faith and committing to the downtrodden program.
“I think it was just the location,” said Stanova, who’s from Slovakia. “Mainly that it was on the East Coast, so it’s close to Europe. And Washington D.C. is the Capital, so that’s all we could ask for.”
Then there’s the one who stayed home: Olivia Gaudreault. Originally, she said, she wanted to branch out and go farther away from home. But visits on back-to-back weekends sealed the deal. She didn’t even need to finish the second one before she knew her decision.
“We were just walking around and I just had this sense of being able to see myself going to school here,” Gaudreault said. “I called my mom like halfway through it and I was like, ‘I don’t even think I need to finish this visit because I know I want to go to Maryland.’”
Gaudreault, who’s from Annapolis, is an in-state student. But her connection to campus runs a little deeper than most.
“My grandfather went here and he played on the men’s tennis team and won an NCAA doubles title and my mother and uncle, they were born on campus, and would later go to school here,” Gaudreault said. “I have a lot of ties to Maryland.”
The fourth senior is Cassandre Thebault, an international student-athlete from France who knew she wanted to study business upon her arrival.
“I knew Maryland was a good school,” Thebault said. “And it was next to D.C., which is pretty great. It’s easy to access.”
With all the misfortune of the program going into the recruiting cycle, there was no telling how Panova would assemble a team, or if it would be any good. But she got these four to put pen to paper, and the wheels started turning.
‘You live and you learn’
Year 1 got off to a rocky start. With no more room in her luggage on her flight from Slovakia, Stanova decided against packing her tennis shoes, knowing she’d get some nice new Under Armour kicks when she got to campus. The shoes didn’t get to campus right away. She sat out the first week of practice without proper footwear.
Like any incoming freshmen, there were plenty of uncertainties, made only more complicated by international travel and confusion over dining plans, schedules and exactly how much gear was provided for the team by the school.
“I feel like the fact that we were all so lost and we didn’t really have upperclassmen to tell us what was going on [made us closer],” Gaudreault said. “We literally just had to pave a path for ourselves and we only had each other to be like, ‘What’s going on?’ We were kind of just lost for the first whole semester, but that ended up being what made us so close.”
The good news is that the girls weren’t afraid to ask questions. The bad news is that their questions came in droves and annoyed Panova, Gaudreault said, to the point where the coach said that the next person to ask a question about something on the schedule would get in trouble.
But there was one question they didn’t get to ask: What time is practice?
Everybody showed up an hour to an hour and a half late to their first group practice.
“What was our motto? ‘You live and you learn,’” Hovsepyan said. “Whenever we did something that didn’t make sense, ‘you live and you learn.’”
That was a bit of foreshadowing for the year to come. It was the school’s last year in the ACC, a notoriously tough women’s tennis conference. With little experience on the roster, the four freshmen were forced into action right away.
Thebault, Gaudreault and Hovsepyan were all hurt during parts of their freshman seasons and the team finished with a losing record. Stanova was a lone bright spot, finishing with a handful of impressive wins, good enough to earn Third Team All-ACC honors.
Their sophomore year started off a little better, but ended in much the same way. The team was off to a roaring start, going 8-4 before things went south. All around the same time, Stanova tore her ACL, Hovsepyan needed thumb surgery and Thebault tore a ligament in her wrist.
“Everybody was just really shook by what happened,” Gaudreault said.
It was an unfortunate series of events that happened in such quick succession that, ultimately, the team didn’t recover. The Terps lost seven in a row, but were able to eke out a win in the season finale on the road at Purdue.
Maryland improved on its record from the year before, but finishing 10-12 after an 8-4 start was disappointing. Still, Panova saw a glimmer of hope for the future.
“Their sophomore year, before [Stanova] got injured, we were No. 43 in the country,” she said. “We had a winning streak of five matches straight against all ranked opponents, so I knew it back then. It was just a question of waiting. Waiting for it all to come together.”
‘Something that we’re all proud of’
After months of rehab that extended into the fall, Stanova was cleared to start playing doubles near the end of the fall season, and that’s when she started to form her partnership with Hovsepyan. But like everything else the girls had been through in their time at Maryland, what ended up as a great pairing didn’t start out that way.
“It took a while to figure out how to cooperate on the court,” Stanova said.
Once they figured out how to communicate and know where the other was going to be, things came a little easier.
“I think we did have to grow into the thing a little bit,” Hovsepyan said. “We had a pretty good season, some good wins, but it took time.”
The whole team built on the year before, winning several big matches in the spring and finally qualifying for the Big Ten Tournament for the first time in school history as the No. 5 seed. Despite a quarterfinal exit, there was still that same old feeling that there was the potential to do big things.
“You always felt like there was potential,” Thebault said. “There was always this little thing missing. But we all felt like we could do something great.”
And they did.
That duo of Stanova and Hovsepyan? They won five of six doubles tournaments in the fall and qualified for ITA Indoor Championships.
“We had a solid fall,” Hovsepyan said. “Everyone pretty much found success in some way.”
Even without winning many tournaments, the overall level of play was elevated. Across the board, the team knew that the future held continued success, especially Panova who had been insisting for some time at this point that, with everybody healthy, this team could make some noise.
“I knew that we had a bunch of Ferraris in the garage, but we just didn’t see them on the road yet,” she said.
Starting with the season opener against Navy, the team put the pedal to the floor, racing out of the gates to win their first six matches, tying a program record. On their drive through the season, the team was ranked as high as No. 33 in the country — the fifth-highest mark in program history.
The Terps kept their foot on the gas all season, never losing more than two matches in a row. They parlayed their success into 16 wins — the most wins in a spring season in Maryland history — and a second-straight No. 5 seed in the Big Ten Tournament.
“It’s something that we’re all proud of,” Hovsepyan said. “Seeing what we started. I don’t think it’s set in yet. I know how significant it is and I know how crazy the journey has been, but I haven’t been able to wrap my head around it yet.”
Unfortunately for the Terps, another quarterfinal exit from the Big Ten Tournament ended their run. Just like that, it was all over for the seniors.
‘They’re not just tennis players’
Like most collegiate athletes, the four seniors will have to find another way to spend their time after they graduate. All of them are headed to the next level of higher education.
“I think it’s important to mention that they’re not just tennis players,” Panova said. “We have four graduating seniors who will attend grad school. How many coaches can say that?”
Stanova will go to grad school at Georgetown for sports industry management and may stick around Maryland’s tennis program as an assistant coach. Hovsepyan will take a year off to study for her LSATs and then go to law school. Gaudreault is studying to go to pharmacy school. Thebault will go to grad school too, either in America or in France.
They’ll leave the team in good hands as junior Ekaterina Tour, sophomores Arnelle Sullivan and Caroline Williams and freshmen Katsiaryna Yemelyanenka and Saya Usui are the new core of the team. Each contributed at some point last season, and will take on bigger roles come next year, especially with only two recruits signed at the moment. They’ll have some big shoes to fill.
The graduating seniors have laid the groundwork for them. They helped elevate the program from an also-ran to a back-to-back top-five team in the conference. The next logical step is for the new crop of Terps to take the team to the NCAA Tournament.
“I just hope we inspired our teammates,” Thebault said.
While these four won’t be here to see first-hand where the program goes, they’ve certainly left an impression on their coach.
“It’s like you’ve been a family for four years,” Panova said. “Especially this group because we truly went through everything together. Coming from nothing, surviving every possible injury. We went through some of the worst seasons, went through all the injuries, went through being No. 40 and losing every single match after that, we went through the best season in program history. So they’re always gonna have a special place in my heart.”