Bills international talent thrives, gels in fall season

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Courtesey Billiken Media Relations

Sophomore Women’s Tennis team captain Stephanie Hollis has only one year of collegiate tennis under her belt, but she already has one heck of a leadership task on her plate. The second year member of the Saint Louis University women’s tennis team is in command of a squad that features players from a grand total of three continents.

This tosses in an extra twist to the already tricky duties of the captain position. Not only does she help Head Coach Jon Zych balance the team strategy and personalities of a bunch of teenage and twenty-something girls, but she also has to do this with a pair of non-native English speakers on the courts. “It’s really fun to play on a team made up of diverse personalities,” Hollis said. “It adds more character to the team, and it’s great to have so many different influences. Those differences exist, but we all are working towards this one goal of winning the Atlantic 10.”

The two players hailing from foreign soil are freshman Maria Toro Moreno, a native of Medellin, Colombia, and Kasia Tomalak, who calls Krefeld, Germany home. The eclectic mix of Billikens has raced out to a fast start in the fall season, and the Bills are primed to make a run deep in the A-10 tournament next spring.

The average international student struggles with the inherent language barrier, an adjustment to the rigorous, competitive atmosphere of universities in the United States, and the stresses of missing far away family and home cooked meals. Moreno is no different. Moreno has racked up her fair share of hours in Pius Library, as she is planning on earning a degree in Biology and Chemistry. She is not afraid to admit she misses her family. And every now and then, her mouth waters for some Colombian cuisine, especially arepa, the versatile corn dough used in many dishes in South America.

Despite the separation from the comforts of home, she has maintained an upbeat attitude. “I really don’t have any complaints and have had so much fun with the program,” Moreno said. “It just gets tough sometimes because I have no time between class, workouts and then practices.” Moreno, who fell in love with tennis at age seven, attended a bilingual academy in Colombia, where she learned English. She watches a little American television to help improve her speaking and grammar. “I really like to watch the Discovery Channel,” she said, showing shades of her passion for science.

Her teammates have kept a close eye on her to make sure she progresses both on the court and off. “With a few of us coming from so far away, we really try to look out for one another,” Hollis said. “We try and get together outside of tennis also to do team bonding things…like going out to lunch or dinner together.” For the most part, foreign-born athletes find peace in the boundaries of their respective games because sport knows no language. Wherever you go, the rules of baseball, basketball or rugby are constant. This is a comforting and universal aspect of the games we play.

When Moreno first arrived, she could not claim to have the same initial feeling of being at home on the tennis courts. She grew up playing primarily on the traditional clay courts of Colombia, which play a little slower but the ball bounces higher. In the U.S., competitions take place on the much faster hard courts. Hollis and her fellow teammates have noticed the hard work she has put in to ease the transition. “She’s doing great with playing on the different surface and I know that can be a difficult move,” Hollis said. “It kind of goes unnoticed sometimes but there’s also a huge difference in the climate she is playing in.” Moreno brings a little flare from home to the courts at SLU. “Coming from Colombia, you can tell there’s such a difference in her game,” Hollis revealed. “Her strokes are so much more smooth and [she’s an] awesome net player. Us Midwestern girls are more grinders. We’re in it for the long rally.”

So far, her South American style of play has faired well against her first few NCAA competitions. She has racked up a 7-3 record in singles play and has teamed up with Jenny Nalepa to post a 8-2 mark in doubles play. Hollis has picked up right where she left off last year after picking up the Atlantic 10 Conference’s Most Outstanding Rookie Performer award last season.
She has notched a 6-3 record while competing solo and has added eight wins to only three losses while playing alongside junior Mia Elmore. They have plenty of matches in front of them until the first service of the A-10 season takes place next spring.

Since the tennis season spans two semesters, there is little chance for any of the players to get the opportunity to study abroad. Hollis is quick to recognize everyone having a valuable cross-cultural experience every time the team gets together. “Here at SLU, you can get stuck in your own culture bubble,” she said. “I get to learn about their cultures. It’s really interesting to hear from Maria and Kashia the differences in what they’re experiencing.” The Billikens have wrapped up their fall schedule and will now spend the winter prepping for the Atlantic 10 Conference schedule held in the spring.