URBANA, IL – After flying into Chicago, driving two hours south and arriving late Tuesday night in Urbana, IL, ahead of the NCAA Championships, the next morning Romy Koelzer wanted to make sure her Clemson teammates knew that their hotel stopped serving breakfast at 9:30 a.m., and sent them text message reminders so they wouldn’t miss the meal.
“Romy is like the mom of the team,” freshman Tristen Dewar said with a laugh.
That Koelzer is only a sophomore herself says a lot about how young the Tiger team that is getting set to play in the NCAA Round of 16 actually is.
Clemson’s roster is comprised of four freshmen and three sophomores – without a single upperclassman – and has only two players, Beatrice Gumulya and Koelzer, who competed for the team last season.
“It’s the youngest team I’ve ever coached in my 20-some years of coaching,” Tiger head coach Nancy Harris said.
No player personifies Clemson’s youth, and its precociousness, more than freshman Liz Jeukeng, who won’t turn 17 until May 26 – five days after the team would play for the national championship should it advance that far.
But Jeukeng has been far from overwhelmed by facing older opposition, as she went 10-1 in ACC play at the No. 2 singles spot and is 9-4 this season against ranked foes.
In the Tigers’ 4-2 win over Vanderbilt that clinched their Round of 16 berth, Jeukeng cruised to a 6-2, 6-2 victory when many of her teammates were locked into three-set battles.
Surprisingly, Jeukeng says she doesn’t feel any added pressure by being thrust into the No. 2 singles position.
“Not at all,” she said. “I just feel like I have to go out there and do my job.”
Jeukeng’s family moved from Cameroon to the United States when she was two years old, and she enrolled in college as a 16-year-old after graduating high school a year early.
Ranked the No. 33 singles player in the nation, Jeukeng is one of three Tigers – No. 16 Yana Koroleva and No. 40 Gumulya are the others – who will stick around after the NCAA Tournament to compete in the NCAA Singles Championships.
“The girls love her,” Harris said of Jeukeng. “They don’t see her as a 16-year-old. They see her as another teammate their age, or maybe a little sister. She is treated with the utmost respect and certainly valued by each one of the team members.”
Two other freshmen, Dewar and Ani Miao, have made major contributions to the team’s success, with records of 18-13 and 16-10, respectively, in singles play this season, while fellow frosh Carola Pederzani has also played five singles matches.
Dewar admitted she was surprised the team had advanced so far in her first season on campus, as the Tigers are set to face No. 4 national seed Georgia at 1 p.m. Friday with a berth in the quarterfinals at stake.
“It’s really exciting because it’s my first time here and I didn’t think I would actually be here as a freshman,” Dewar said. “It’s exciting to know the team has that great of potential to be here.”
A product of Bradenton, FL, Dewar pointed to the Tigers’ team chemistry as a key to their success.
“We all want each other to succeed,” she said, “and I think that once you have that, the sky is the limit because you have people supporting you.”
Harris agreed the support system Dewar talked about is a big reason for her team’s success. In fact, the longtime Clemson head coach said that sense of family is one of the big primary reasons Koelzer – the aforementioned “team mom” – chose to come to Clemson from Betzdorf, Germany.
“She wasn’t just interested in the great tennis Clemson has been fortunate enough to have,” Harris said. “She wanted to be a part of a very unique team and a family environment … and that’s something we have at Clemson that makes Clemson very special. I think that’s a big part of why this young team has been able to thrive and do so well – we have that family environment.
“Youngsters need leadership, and they need people looking after them and caring about them.”
Clemson will play in the 11th Final 16 in school history, with eight of those coming since Harris took the helm in 1998, including a streak of four straight from 2007-11.
As for the bond the current squad shares, Harris said she hopes it will only continue to grow like the one her 2004 and 2005 teams developed during their back-to-back runs to the Final Four.
“The bond that happened in those two years between those girls is amazing where they are today and what it did to them as people and how it matured them and challenged them as human beings,” Harris said. “It brought them so close together that today they are probably closer than any of my other teams.”
And with that, Harris admitted that her young team was already “ahead of schedule” in its development and said any further progress the Tigers can make in the NCAA Championships will only accelerate their growth even more.
“That’s the value: This experience you cannot experience any other time during the season,” she said. “So, if we’re fortunate enough to get past Georgia and maybe go a couple more rounds, when these girls come back as sophomores and juniors, I can assure you that they’ll be much more to contend with.”
That’s a scary thought for opponents who have found them plenty tough to contend with as freshmen and sophomores.
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