Athina Tsagkaraki called her first couple of months at Mercyhurst “maybe the worst time” of her life. More than 5,000 miles from her home on Crete, she was adapting to a new environment and a new culture while trying to balance academics with playing collegiate tennis.
She wasn’t alone. Four of Tsagkaraki’s five Laker teammates last season hailed from outside the U.S., so at least she had the benefit of being around others who could empathize with her situation.
“I was very sad. But people here were so understanding,” said Tsagkaraki. “Especially my teammates. They made me feel like home. They could understand everything I was going through.”
The PSAC — not unlike other NCAA Division II conferences — has become a veritable Ellis Island for tennis players. Mercyhurst and Edinboro field men’s teams in the PSAC West, and among the 19 players between the two rosters, there are 15 internationals.
Seven PSAC West schools have women’s teams, and of the 51 total players, 24 are from overseas. Two-time defending conference champion IUP has seven players, all internationals. At Mercyhurst, six of coach Jerome Simon’s seven players are from overseas, and four of the five women on Edinboro’s roster are internationals.
“The majority of internationals go Division II,” said Edinboro coach Kody Duncan. “There is a stereotype in the American world — at least the tennis world — if you’re really good, you’re going to go D-III with a really high academic school, or you want that persona of being a Division I player.
“It’s hard to recruit good American players at the Division II level.”
Like any coach, tennis coaches are hired to win, and tapping into the global market has proven to be an effective method in the PSAC. The Cal (Pa.) women, under former coach Pablo Montana, won 10 straight conference titles (2007-16) using rosters made up primarily of internationals.
“Not only were they winning our conference, they were competing in the top 10 nationally,” said IUP coach Larry Peterson, who is in his 11th season with the Crimson Hawks. “This was my first head coaching job, and when I was trying to figure out how to do things, I would look at their website and learn from them because they were, obviously, doing it well.”
Peterson was a good student, ending Cal’s run and starting a title streak of his own. Perhaps not coincidentally, the runner-up to IUP both times was Mercyhurst.
Peterson and Duncan agreed tennis is more popular in other parts of the world than in the U.S., creating a bigger, deeper talent pool. But with many programs having recruiting budgets that are, at best, minimal, scouting foreign players in person is next to impossible.
This is where the internet comes in. With ubiquitous recruiting sites as well as YouTube, coaches can scout from their office chair.
Simon cautioned, however, that recruiting videos often must be taken with a grain of salt. Sometimes, he said, videos show only the players for whom they are made, so it’s not realistic to assess the level of their competition. Also, videos are edited to show only the best shots and not the flaws.
“What I like is results more than anything,” the eighth-year Mercyhurst coach said. “There are no style points in tennis.”
Added Peterson: “It’s not easy to do when you’re talking about international kids because most of the recruiting is done by email. It’s not an easy process, but when you get it right, it’s very rewarding for the students and for me.”
More often than not, it is the players who are “recruiting” the schools.
Many foreign players work with agencies that will help them find a U.S. school. Others do the legwork on their own.
Simon said he gets 10 to 20 inquiries a day from international players. For them, the chance to play and study in America is too good to pass up.
“I watch American TV programs, and I thought going to America would be a huge opportunity,” said Mercyhurst junior Cormac McCooey, a native of Ireland whose older brother, Conor, also played for the Lakers. “The fact that I knew everything was on such a big scale, they have such great facilities and you’re treated so well. And the opportunity to go travel.
“I tell my friends back home that I’m so glad I came. Once I’ve graduated, I think this is going to be the best four years of my life.”
IUP junior Katya Minchenkova, a native of Russia and the 2018 PSAC singles runner-up, spent three summers in Miami at a tennis academy. While there, she learned of the opportunity to get a scholarship to an American college.
“If someone told me in ninth grade that I would come here and study here and get a scholarship to play tennis, I would not have believed it,” she said.
Once the players arrive in the U.S., making them comfortable in their new surroundings as quickly as possible is paramount. Many go through what Tsagkaraki did: experiencing the isolation of being far from home in another country and trying to speak a language that might not be their first language.
Minchenkova was not unfamiliar with the U.S., but her previous trips were made with family. She was on her own when she came to IUP.
“It’s very hard to be by yourself,” Minchenkova said. “Here, I have to do everything myself. And for me it was the first experience that I played a team sport. I was used to only individual tournaments, so I played for myself. Here, it’s a team environment, and everybody is counting on you.”
Here, again, technology helps. Video chats enable players to keep in constant contact with their families and ease the anxiety of being away. Peterson said it is commonplace for one of his players to pass the last few minutes before practice by video-chatting with a family member.
He said he believes it is incumbent on the coaches to help make the international players’ transition an easy one and, as a result, give them an environment that enables them to succeed on and off the court.
Duncan, a native of Oil City, has seen both sides, first as a player at Edinboro and now as the Scots’ coach. He said the other players, particularly the Americans, have a role in helping the internationals to adapt.
“You just have to treat them like a second family,” he said. “I try to look at it as: If I was going to a different country to be on a team, how would I want to be treated? You’re going to feel like you’re a part of something. Even though you’re away from home, you have a family here.”
Tsagkaraki adjusted to her “second family.” She went 22-5 as a singles player last season and reached the quarterfinals of the 2018 conference singles tournament.
Now, as a sophomore, she is helping the Lakers’ three international freshmen make the transition to he U.S. No longer scared and lonely, Tsagkaraki is relishing the benefits of her own little American melting pot.
“It’s really nice because we are so diverse,” she said. “Everybody is from a different place. I have the opportunity to be with so many different kids.”