Ron Christman | Head Coach | Men’s and Women’s Tennis | Waynesburg University

Describe the qualities that your program is looking for in a potential student-athlete and examples of athletes who have exceeded your expectations?

This has turned into more of an essay than the two short answers that you asked for but I don’t know how to express it differently. I coach men’s and women’s tennis at Waynesburg University, an hour south of Pittsburgh, Pa., half hour north of WVU in Morgantown, WV. We are a small private university that is a NCAA Division III institution and happen to be in the most competitive DIII recruiting region in the country. There are 88 women’s tennis programs (72 men’s) in Pennsylvania and 55 of them are division III. New York has 51, New England 55 and Ohio another 20 DIII tennis programs. Add in New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia and I am competing against over 200 NCAA Division III programs for good student-athletes in my immediate recruiting area. When you consider that the top DIII tennis players could also play in DI or DII programs with skills honed on the USTA junior circuit from a very early age, you soon recognize why on any given weekend throughout the year that a tennis coach has choices of dozens of USTA junior tournaments to travel to for recruiting.

Let me give you two examples of what I’m looking for, one nationally recognized and one from my team. Katie Cecil is a junior and the #1 women’s player at Carnegie Mellon University. She is currently the cover story of the spring 2013 issue of NCAA Champions Magazine (I highly recommend you try to find a copy because it really tells the story of strong DIII athletes). Katie first attended DI Tulane with an 11-7 singles record (.500 in doubles) her freshman year. She transferred to CMU because she was a bio-med engineering major and was looking for a high quality tennis program at a strong academic school where she could study a tough major. CMU is a nationally ranked program (#8) that travels extensively so it wasn’t like Katie was backing away from the time away from the classroom for matches, nor was it a case of Tulane being a weak academic institution. The difference was the emphasis on academics by the institution, the coach, and her teammates. While earning a record of 14-7 in singles this year she is a 4.0 GPA student in a very competitive major. She has been involved in community service, SAAC, and shadowing/interning in her major. Katie was just awarded the DIII Arthur Ashe Jr. Leadership and Sportsmanship award by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association. I was the NCAA Site Representative at the DIII regional tournament and got to see her play several times recently. CMU lost in the third round to Johns Hopkins. Hopkins lost to Williams in the fourth round and Williams went on to defeat Emory for the national title yesterday. While Katie is a standout, all seven teams in the regional were loaded with good players with many of Katie’s attributes.

Isaiah Cochran is a sophomore and #1 on our men’s team at Waynesburg. Isaiah is 4.0 in pre-med and was the driving force behind the founding of our pre-med American Medical Students Association at the beginning of his second semester of his freshman year. He was recently named regional director of the NE region of AMSA (there are only five regions in the country). He was voted to the position after giving a presentation on the WU chapter activities before many of the 1500 pre-med majors at the AMSA International Conference in Washington, DC in March. A couple weeks later Isaiah passed on flying to New Orleans on a Friday with our American Chemical Society students. They were attending the ACS International Symposium to present their undergraduate research papers. Instead of flying out with the group, Isaiah played a conference match on Saturday, got up at 2:00am Sunday for a 5:00am flight, made it to the conference in time for all of his meetings and presentations on Sunday and Monday. He caught a flight back to Pittsburgh Tuesday morning to be on the court for the pre-match warm-up for another important conference match at 2:00pm. He also made sure he made up the labs he missed on Monday and Tuesday. Isaiah leaves in a week on a full fellowship to the Sackler Institute at Yale University to do molecular cell biology research for ten weeks this summer. He was awarded one of ten fellowships from over 1500 applicants and will be working with one of the top cell biologists in the world.

Isaiah stopped in the office with two other rising juniors to talk about their plans for summer and what they want to do to help our incoming recruits in the fall. I didn’t call them in; they decided they wanted to do more in the van on the way back from our conference tournament (We fell short of where we wanted to finish). True to his commitment, Isaiah sent me text messages from home on Monday about arranging to hit and workout at the Yale tennis complex while he’s there.

Isaiah’s teammates include a graduating senior pre-med major who had presented his paper at the ACS symposium in San Diego as a junior and did his fellowship on kidney research at the Mayo Clinic that summer; and a pre-law/poly sci. major who attended a meeting with a Supreme Court justice, returned to campus with his fellow scholarship winners that Friday night to jump in his car to drive home to mid-Ohio, so his family could drive him to Kentucky on Saturday morning to be Isaiah’s doubles partner in another conference match. I’m sure you could look at Katie’s teammates and see the same thing. In fact, CMU, Johns Hopkins, and Mary Washington, the top three seeds in the regional tournament, each played their first round matches missing two of their starting players because of academic commitments (finals, presentations, etc.). They are that strong and deep that they could get through a round of the NCAA tournament missing one-third of their top six players! All, of course, arrived before the second round by various means.

Carnegie Mellon and many of the teams in the NCAA tournament are known internationally for their academics while Waynesburg is strong academically but doesn’t have the same reputation. The differences between Katie Cecil and Isaiah Cochran are slight however. Athletically she’s reached a little higher level but the commitment, the drive to succeed, and the leadership on and off the court varies little between the two. The time management, the self-motivation, the awareness of the ‘big picture’ varies little between the two. The connection to their teammates, coaches, and school varies little between the two.

Just looking at the efforts of the players, coaches, and staff of each team in the NCAA tournament you can see that virtually every good DIII coach is looking for the same kind of student-athlete to fill their team top to bottom. Because the tournament director and the head referee were exceptional my duties were minimal and I had a lot of time to watch good tennis and observe the teams on and off the court. I picked out the six or seven players I would like to coach as the core of a team to take to the championship. Of the seven teams in the tournament only Katie was the #1 on her team. Applying the same criteria that I use when recruiting at a USTA junior tournament, I looked at their athleticism and technique but put major emphasis on how they handled themselves on and off the court. Not just how competitive were they but how were their dealings with opponents and officials. How supportive of their teammates were they, how were they with their coaches, families and fans, and how did they react to a loss. How were they with a teammate who just lost the key match that led to their not moving on in the tournament (Nothing worse than the trip home after losing the match that cost the team the trip to the national tournament if your teammates think only of themselves).

I can make a good athlete a better athlete far easier when I know that the emotional, mental, and social attributes are solid. Katie didn’t win the NCAA tournament and Isaiah didn’t win our conference championship but I’ll take either one of them to build a team around because I know that both of them will be better at everything they do next year and the year after. If they do that and can instill that in their teammates, then I know our team is on its way to the big prize and they and their teammates are on their way to even greater accomplishments when they move on.