May 18, 2011
In 2001, the Vanderbilt women's tennis team defeated UCLA, Duke and Georgia at the NCAA Championships to advance to the first national final in any sport in school history. Aleke Tsoubanos was a freshman on that team, not yet the three-time All-American and school record-holder in career doubles victories and doubles winning percentage she would go on to become in her four years as a student-athlete.
"I was kind of naïve," Tsoubanos said of her team's arrival at the NCAA Championships. "We just thought, `Sweet 16 - How cool would it be to be in the Elite Eight?' We didn't think about it as getting to a Sweet 16. It was, `Great. Let's win another one.'"
Ten years after that national finals appearance - and after a "two-year hiatus," as senior Keilly Ulery referred to it, from the NCAA Sweet 16 - the Commodores return for the 13th time to the later rounds of postseason play, a lofty accomplishment turned program standard under Head Coach Geoff Macdonald in the past decade and a half. Now in her fourth year as an assistant coach with the team, Tsoubanos finds herself in a familiar role as a valuable leader and a central component in a Vanderbilt postseason run.
"It's great to be back (in the Sweet 16), for the team and for (Coach Macdonald) and for Lekes, because that's where they deserve to be," Ulery said.
With wins over Winthrop and Tennessee in the regional rounds over the weekend, Vanderbilt improved its all-time NCAA Tournament record to 35-16 and advanced to the Sweet 16 for the 13th time out of 15 second-round appearances in program history. Tsoubanos experienced four of those Sweet 16s as a student-athlete from 2001 to 2004, including the Commodores' run to the national final in 2001. Vanderbilt reached the quarterfinals in 2003 and reached the semifinals in 2004, Tsoubanos' senior season. "She almost hit for the cycle," joked Macdonald.
After three years on tour as a professional, Tsoubanous returned to her alma mater as an assistant coach and reunited with Macdonald, whom she had kept in contact with in the years following her graduation.
"Even as a freshman or sophomore, she thought like a coach," said Macdonald, who is in his 17th year as Vanderbilt's head coach. "We bonded right away, and getting the chance to bring her back was something I just jumped at. I actually recruited her again to coach, that's how valuable she is to us."
Up until the 2009 season, the Commodores had never had to travel to get to their opening-round match in the NCAA Tournament. Their experiences as the lower seed had been short-lived ones until they knocked off Tennessee on Sunday - they lost a first-round matchup to Illinois in Urbana in 2009 and were stopped short of a Sweet 16 berth by the Lady Vols in Knoxville last year. All season long, Tsoubanous drew on her own experiences as a player to impress upon her players the significance of late-season success.
"You try to get them to dream a little bit," Tsoubanos said. "At the beginning of the year, it's a long year, and it's hard to focus your sights on the end of the year because you have such a long way to go."
"She knows exactly what this means," Ulery said. "We have meetings before every match, and she kind of gives us the whole pump-up talk. I think she's great for the freshmen, too. Having that kind of a mentor is awesome."
Ulery, who was a freshman in 2008 when the Commodores topped Indiana State and Kentucky to advance to the NCAA Championships in Tulsa, is the only current Vanderbilt player with Sweet 16 experience. With so many players stepping onto an unfamiliar stage in Palo Alto this weekend, Tsoubanos' poise and familiarity with the pressure of the deeper rounds of the postseason will be more valuable than ever.
"She knows exactly what we're going through, and she can kind of preempt the emotions we're going to experience on the court," said senior Rachael Dillon. "While we're in the middle of the match, too, she knows what to say to us, some calming words to keep us in check."
Her efforts as a coach and a motivator have not gone unnoticed - last Thursday, Tsoubanos was named the Ohio Valley Region Assistant Coach of the Year for the second year in a row. And according to Ulery, she can still more than hold her own on the court.
"She schools us in doubles," Ulery said. "She's a legend at doubles - she's amazing - so I'm like, `Why can't we play that well?' She's great, and getting to hit with her is awesome."
Tsoubanos' stroke is not the only thing that is still going strong just under a decade removed from her student-athlete years. She believes the "Why not?" mentality that served her college teams so well in the championship rounds has reemerged within the current group of players.
"Of course the draw's loaded, and you know that everybody's good - UNC's a very good team," she said. "But I think we're in a place where we've competed hard all year and got through a really tough regional, and at this point, you have to have fun with it and go out and play."