Minium: ODU's Women's Tennis Team Doesn't Get a Lot of Press, but Monarchs Think They Can Make NCAA Sweet 16
By ODU Athletics
By Harry Minium
Tennis is often typecast as a sport that’s easy to play. All you do is bat a ball back and forth over a net, right?
If you’ve ever played tennis, and my tennis days ended nearly a decade ago after I had knee surgery, you know that’s not true. Tennis can be as physically demanding as any sport played on a court or a field.
Old Dominion’s women’s tennis players lift weights and run, and train hours every day, just like ODU’s men’s teams.
Yet when they had the best season in school history, as they did this spring, they didn’t get a lot of love from the media. No TV reporters have come out to interview them at the ODU Tennis Center. They’re lucky if they get a paragraph or two in the local newspapers.
The Monarchs enter the NCAA tournament Friday in Columbia, S.C., where they play the University of Virginia in a regional matchup, with a bit of a chip on their shoulders.
It is their second NCAA tournament bid ever.
“We had the best season ever at ODU, by every measure an historic season, and we pretty much got zero media attention,” said Holly Hutchinson, a junior from London, England who is ODU’s No. 1 player.
“I feel being a woman playing sport in college has much to do with that. When you do so well, and pretty much get no attention for no other reason than you’re a woman, that’s pretty tough to take.”
Dom Manilla has built his program around a family atmosphere and was named Conference USA Coach of the Year this spring.
ODU indeed has had a great season. The Monarchs finished 19-4 and won at No. 19 Tennessee and No. 50 Baylor, both Power 5 conference schools with far more resources than ODU.
“We come out here every morning and work every day to represent the school,” added Brooke Pilkington, a junior from Virginia Beach.
“It’s hard to come back from winning a match at Tennessee and it’s like we never left town. And we go do it again and no one notices.
“It’s difficult to take when people don’t know anything about us or when they walk up and ask you, “Are you any good?’ ”
Let me make it clear that Grant Gardner, who handles women's tennis for the ODU's sports information department, does all he can to publicize the team. He posts previews, game stories and videos online weekly. ODU commits more public relations resources to its non-revenue teams than most mid-major schools.
But the truth is, college tennis doesn't have a big fan following.
Tennis is among the Olympic sports often cosigned to the media desert. And the media, rightly or wrong, does stories on sports teams they think that will generate a lot of interest.
That’s in part why I spent an hour with some players and head coach Dominic Manilla this recently. I felt these young women deserve more coverage, and when I spoke with them, I found a pretty good story.
The Monarchs are ranked 37th nationally and that’s playing at a school without the resources of Power 5 schools, or without the cred of private schools such as Pepperdine.
A Charlottesville native, Manilla played tennis at ODU and agreed to become an assistant coach for the Monarchs’ women’s team with perhaps the worst recruiting line I’ve ever heard.
He received a phone call from them coach Darryl Cummings, who's now the head men's coach at Norfolk State. “He told me I’ve had six people turn me down. Do you want the job?” said Manilla, who is called “Dom” by his players.
He took the job, then quickly ascended to the head coaching position. Slowly, he built ODU into a top 40 program by beating Power 5 schools for recruits.
“It’s hard to describe how proud I am of what we’ve done here,” he said. “We’ve got people here who believe in us,” he said, mentioning senior associate athletic director Bruce Stewart and athletic director Wood Selig.
“When I tell Wood that I think we can make the NCAA round of 16, he believes in us, he doesn’t look at me like I’m crazy.”
Manilla is in his eighth year as head coach and took over when ODU was a middling program in the Colonial Athletic Association. Conference USA is a much better tennis league, and when ODU began playing in C-USA in 2014, Manilla said the program had growing to do.
Brooke Piklington transferred to ODU from Delaware and was Conference USA newcomer of the year..
“I wish it hadn’t taken eight years,” he said. “But we’ve got the program in a good place now.”
Like many college tennis coaches, Manilla has filled his roster with recruits from overseas. He’s recruited every continent except Antarctica and Australia.
ODU has four Ukranians (although they speak Russian as the first language) and other players from Belarus and Scotland.
Pilkington, who attended Cape Henry Collegiate, is the only American. She transferred from Delaware in search of a better program and chose ODU over Virginia.
She said Manilla’s presence was a big factor. “Dom coached me when I was little,” she said. “I loved what he was doing with the program and I wanted to be around my family and have that support there.”
Women’s tennis isn’t a revenue sport, but ODU often draws large crowds to the when they play indoors at the ODU Tennis Complex or the outdoor courts. It’s not unusual for 150 people to crowd in and root for the Monarchs.
“We go to Power 5 schools and we don’t see the support there that we have here,” Hutchinson said.
That and the ODU Tennis Center, one of the finest indoor facilities you'll find on any college campus, have helped attract players to Manilla's program.
Hutchinson said she feels a lot of support from athletes and coaches from other ODU teams. Football player Oshane Ximines, who was drafted last week by the New York Giants, and basketball stars Ahmad Caver and B.J. Stith have talked to her and texted encouragement, she said.
“They are just supportive of me in general, and they know how we’re doing every time I see them,” she said.
Manilla said that the recruitment of Hutchinson and Pilkington proves ODU can beat Power 5 schools for outstanding players.
Yulia Starodubtseva, from the Ukraine, is one of ODU's 7 international players.
Hutchinson visited Penn State after her visit to ODU, but knew before she even arrived in State College that she would attend school in Norfolk.
“I knew after meeting Dom, and spending a couple of hours on campus, this was where I wanted to go,” she said.
“Dom has kind of become like family. I don’t have my parents here. Having that figure in my life that I can talk to him literally about anything has helped me.
“He cares about you much more as a person than he does as a player. Brooke and I would lay down our lives for him.”
When I told Dom what his players said about him, I didn’t expect the reaction I got.
He choked up.
“He always ends the day by asking if we need anything,” Pilkington added. “Do we need snacks or anything, he’ll ask us. He always wants to make sure we’re taken care of. You don’t know how much that means to us.”
Manilla says ODU can earn its way to the Sweet 16 this weekend.
ODU beat Virginia, 5-2, last season on the road, but lost, 4-3, in Charlottesville this spring.
How good will ODU be next season? "Scary good," says Holly Hutchinson, ODU's No. 1 player.
ODU lost to South Carolina, the Monarchs’ likely opponent in the second round 4-3 in the fall.
“It will be a tough road for us,” Manilla said. “But this teams knows we can do it. It wasn’t our best match at Virginia this year. And we competed well against South Carolina.”
As good as this year has been, ODU’s best days are yet to come. ODU loses only two seniors, and has a big-time recruiting class enrolling next fall.
“If people think what we did this year was good, wait until next year,” Pilkington said.
Added Hutchinson: “We can be scary good.”
Contact Minium: firstname.lastname@example.org