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May 7, 2008
by Joe Guistina, USC Upstate Assistant Media Relations Director
If someone brought the tagline of this season's USC Upstate women's tennis team to a TV producer, there's a good chance that person would be laughed at and dismissed.
No one would really give the story a chance to play out. Who, in their right mind, could believe that a small Division II school, just 40 years old, could make the leap to the pinnacle of amateur athletics and have any level of success?
No team dipping into the waters of Division I athletics could boldly predict, "We are going to make history," and use it not just as a motivator, but a tagline for the whole season - a motto, a dedication, a creed and finally, a promise.
No team, that is, except USC Upstate's women's tennis team. Other coaches in the Atlantic Sun Conference may have been aware of the school from Spartanburg, S.C., that reached the round of 16 at the 2007 NCAA Division II Tournament, but no one could have predicted a perfect 11-0 conference slate and a 17-3 overall slate.
After all, the Spartans never even won a conference title at the Division II level when competing in the Peach Belt Conference. The program had just eight winning seasons in its 20 years of existence. The Atlantic Sun even had a team in Jacksonville that finished the 2007 season ranked nationally by the ITA.
The team's own head coach, Alessandro De Marzo, was even a bit dumbfounded by the team's Cinderella story. "I knew we were going to be tough (this season), but I didn't know we were going to go undefeated," De Marzo said. "I didn't even dream about it."
Upstate may have not been sure what it was in for, but it did have some of the most accomplished players in school history returning to a team that finished ranked seventh in Division II in 2007. Diana Martinez entered the season with a school-record 100 combined wins. Susana Hernandez, who was ranked 32nd in the final 2007 ITA DII rankings, had 87 wins. Anna Novo, a two-time Division II All-American, and Daniela Lovera each had 62 wins, which entered the year 10th in school history. Maria Herrera, with 60 wins, and Vivian Neuenschwander, with 53 wins, were nipping on the others' heels.
"Both (De Marzo and assistant coach Tami Matheny) told us that they were pretty sure we could win the conference," Novo said. "Tami made it clear that our goal should be to win the conference and that's what we worked for."
The fall tournament season offered a glimpse of what was to come. The tagline, "We are going to make history," was adopted and in short order, the Spartans did. At their own USC Upstate Fall Tournament, Novo won both the singles and doubles titles, beating teammate Hernandez in the `A' flight championship and teaming with freshman Emilia Milovanovic for the title in doubles. Novo worked her magic again at the N.C. State Wolfpack Invitational, winning both her singles and doubles flights, teaming with Milovanovic to beat Hernandez and Herrera in the finals of the doubles tournament.
At the Southern Intercollegiates, Novo and Milovanovic reached the finals of the B-1 flight, beating teams from Virginia Tech and Winthrop at the event.
Still, no one could be prepared for what the spring season held, especially after the team fell, 7-0, to Davidson in their Division I debut on Jan. 31.
"I had a great fall semester and then I came back in January and I didn't play like I felt in the fall," Novo said. "When we went to play at Davidson, we were really bad. After that, I thought it was going to be an awful season, but we talked after that match and talked about how we practiced and played in the fall. We said we had to be better than 7-0."
Just a week later, the Spartans won an emotional match against Wofford, 5-2, in a crosstown rivalry match that saw hundreds of fans line Wofford's terrace to watch. Just two days later, Upstate defeated the defending MEAC champions, S.C. State, 7-0. From there, the Spartans rolled past Presbyterian, 7-0 and Georgia Southern, 5-2, before opening the A-Sun season with wins against Mercer, 7-0, and Kennesaw State, 6-1.
The experienced team, with six of the seven players having been teammates for at least two years, was able to feed off one another, helping key the early success.
"We knew and understood each other pretty well after two years together," Hernandez said. "We know what we like and what we don't like. For example, we knew that Maria liked to have somebody supporting her at her court. Diana doesn't need the support as much. Emilia was the only new player and she blended in so easy and well, so it felt like it was meant to be."
The city of Spartanburg was kind to Upstate during their seven-match winning streak, as six wins came on Upstate's own courts and the other downtown at Wofford. However, a trip to Winthrop in their third match in three days after their A-Sun wins against Mercer and Kennesaw State, proved too much as the Eagles, who went on to their eighth Big South Championship in the last 10 matches, won a three-set match and three sets that went at least 12 games.
"It was tough to play three matches in three days," Lovera, who finished a perfect 9-0 in the A-Sun and 13-2 in dual meets after struggling with injuries during the fall, said. "We were focused on the conference matches and we knew Winthrop and South Florida were very good. We just took those matches as practice and learned from them."
The loss, and three days off, helped propel the Spartans back onto track, however, as the wins started to pile up again. They survived a chaotic trip to Nashville in which the bus left without the team, still managing a 4-0 win over Lipscomb and 5-1 win over Belmont. In came Stetson, who finished third in the conference, and they left with a 7-0 loss. In came 2007 NCAA Division II Regional team FGCU and they were turned away, 5-2.
With a 6-0 record in the conference, Upstate traveled to Jacksonville for a match with an old nemesis in North Florida and the defending conference champions in Jacksonville. North Florida, which never finished below the Spartans when both schools were in the Peach Belt Conference from 1998-2005, fell, 5-2, to the Spartan steamroller.
"Talking to everybody else and the coaches, with the way our schedule was set, we were lucky," Martinez said. "We had to play better teams at the end of the season and we went to the courts thinking we had nothing to lose."
The next day, the Spartans rolled into Jacksonville and after winning a hard-fought doubles point, the Spartans won four two-set singles matches to take a 5-2 win, leaving themselves the only undefeated team left in A-Sun play.
"That weekend was awesome," Lovera said. "We were talking about it every single day that week in practice. We prepared ourselves mentally and physically for the matches."
The Florida trip ended with a 7-0 loss to No. 41 South Florida, but Upstate returned home to defeat Gardner-Webb, 5-0, on April 4 and give them a 9-0 record in the A-Sun.
Rain the next day washed away a match with Campbell, leaving Upstate one win from a share of the conference title and two wins from the outright title as they traveled to ETSU on April 9 to face the only team in the league with a ranked player. It was tight from the start, with the doubles point coming down to a tiebreak. Down 5-4 in the tiebreaking game, Martinez and Herrera came back to win the next three points and take the tiebreaker, 7-5. Singles play was also a bumpy ride with the Spartans splitting their first four matches with the Lady Bucs, leaving the score, 3-2, with both Martinez and Herrera on the court at the No. 5 and No. 6 singles positions.
"In that situation, everything goes through your mind," Martinez said. "'What if I lose?' `What if I win?' `What am I going to do?' `What is everyone going to say?' It was an important match and I started down the first set. I was trying everything and nothing was going right. I just kept fighting with the help of my teammates and my coaches. I started playing my game and seeing the results."
Martinez, down to a match point, fought through to win the second-set, 7-5, and controlled the third-set to win the match, 6-4, setting off a celebration among the Spartans. Soon after, Herrera completed her own three-set win, giving Upstate a 5-2 win and a share of the A-Sun title.
The next day, Upstate downed Campbell, 7-0, to take the A-Sun title outright. Although the match lacked some of the drama of the previous day, it marked the school's first title and helped it earn national attention when Tennis.com labeled it the "Match of the Week."
Indeed, during the magical run, the Spartans made history. They had a school-record four conference players of the week. Novo was a runaway selection as the A-Sun Player of the Year after a school-record 29 wins and a perfect record in the A-Sun.
"Alessandro called me and asked me to sit down," Novo said, "and he said, `You are the Player of the Year.' I said, `Are you serious?' and started jumping around my apartment. Being able to win the award in our first year in Division I, I felt really good."
Novo, Hernandez and Martinez each won 20 matches for the second straight year, becoming the first players in school history to accomplish the feat. Hernandez and Novo each reached 100 career combined wins and Milovanovic won 36 combined matches, an Upstate freshman record. Lovera and Neuenschwander each went undefeated in A-Sun play. Martinez finished her career with a school-record 73 singles wins, 64 doubles wins and 137 combined wins.
Years from now, the seven players from the school's first championship women's tennis team will certainly have plenty to reflect on. From their records to the T-shirts that De Marzo ordered the team during the fall. On the front was a Spartan logo, on the back their tagline, "We are going to make history."