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Sept. 12, 2014

The South Carolina men’s tennis roster is loaded at both ends of the experience spectrum, and head coach Josh Goffi knows his teams ultimate success will come with those at the top sharing every moment of their previous three years with his group of elite newcomers, who collectively form the nation’s No. 3 signing class. Just a few weeks into the fall season, he already sees his three senior captains – Andrew Adams, Kyle Koch and Thiago Pinheiro – rising to the challenge.

“I challenged them going into this season to be the best leader they can be, to leave behind a legacy that they’re proud of,” Goffi said of the trio. “They have really taken it to heart. They’re leading the team right now better than anybody, any team that I’ve been on or part of as a coach. On the court, there’s going to be a dependability and a reliability because of the ownership they feel for this club right now. Whether they are winning or losing individually, you’re going to see these guys give everything for the Gamecocks this season.”

The new additions, which include Thomas Mayronne and Harrison O’Keefe, who redshirted after joining the team last January, certainly have a variety of role models in the senior class as each has a different personality off the court and approach to the game on it. Adams, Koch and Pinheiro are the remaining members of Goffi’s first signing class, which was also ranked third in the nation that year, and have both embraced and helped develop the culture on which the Gamecock program now thrives. They believed in the program’s success when it was little more than the vision and passion of the head coach, and they are now charged with ensuring its continued legacy.

Adams is the most reserved of the trio, but speaks volumes on the court where he has pushed through a series of injuries to clearly establish himself as the Gamecocks’ No. 1 singles player. After exploding onto the scene as a freshman, logging 28 singles victories playing in the Nos. 2 and 3 spots in the lineup, Adams missed the next two fall campaigns with injuries. He shook off slow starts each spring to help power the Gamecocks into the NCAA Tournament. Last season, he further punctuated his comeback from hip surgery with an incredible march through the first two rounds of the NCAA Singles Championship – defeating the Nos. 3 and 26 players in the nation ¬- to reach the round of 16 and earn All-America status.

Koch’s career has been shaped by developing talent as much as his determination and durability. A three-time ITA Scholar-Athlete selection who is equally adept in singles and doubles, his academic achievements match his athletic success. Koch may have missed the 20-win mark in singles and doubles last season for the first time in his career, but he delivered when it counted most – in SEC and postseason action – and closed the season on a 12-match singles win streak. He is one of just four Gamecocks all-time to record multiple seasons with at least eight SEC single victories, and he owns two of the program’s nine seasons with at least seven SEC doubles victories.

The long-standing emotional center of the team – and the most gregarious of the group each year – is Pinheiro, who is in his third season as a team captain. As passionate about his teammates’ successes as his own, the outgoing Brazilian earned one of just seven spots in an elite training program at Anheuser-Busch Companies in St. Louis over the summer and returned to Columbia with a treasure trove of leadership experience. On the court, he will look to close his career with the form that brought him All-SEC honors as a sophomore, turning the page on a junior effort riddled with near-misses down the stretch. His often epic battles have proven to provide an emotional sea-change for the team, though, regardless of his individual outcome.

Behind the senior class is a pair of sophomores in Andrew Schafer and Sam Swank. The former burst onto the scene with a team-high 27 singles victories that included five match-clinching wins in dual-match play, two of which came in postseason action. The latter worked tirelessly with Goffi and assistant coach Ryan Young to refine his game, always ready to step into the lineup and contribute when called on. Goffi is prepared for Swank to make his mark this season. The head coach will not let Schafer rest on his SEC All-Freshman Team laurels, either, already pushing him to expand his comfort zone to include more cerebral play that will allow him to move up in the singles lineup.

“Schafer is ready to explode,” Goffi said. “We all feel that he may have played a little lower in the lineup than he could have last season, but it was important for him to understand that he is able to win in the SEC at any level. That’s what he needs to transfer to this season, and you can really see that he’s buying into the coaching and his development right now. He’s a great athlete and plays free on the court, but this fall I want to see him make a few more jumps mentally to push his high end really high. He has the tools to do it, and he’s making the commitment, so this fall is extremely important for him.”

The nation’s third-ranked recruiting class has arrived in Columbia in stages, led by Mayronne and O’Keefe, whose arrival last spring will give them a leg up this season. Having served their “apprenticeship,” they had extremely successful summer campaigns, including O’Keefe’s run to the semifinals of the ITA/USTA National Summer Championships. Spartanburg’s Wood Benton and Brazil’s Gabriel Friedrich joined the program this fall, and both are just getting their feet set at the college level. While Friedrich will not compete this season, Benton, like the other freshmen, will have an opportunity to join the lineup with a solid fall effort.

“This fall, what I’m looking for from these guys – Swank, Mayronne, O’Keefe and Benton – is to step up in big moments,” Goffi said. “They’re going to play tournaments and be in the position to take down a middle-of-the-lineup or top-of-the-lineup player from an opposing SEC team. If they do it once, great. If they do it twice, then we need to seriously start considering them for a spot in our lineup in the spring. They’re all capable of doing it. It just depends on who steps up.”

This team, bookended by three seniors who believed in a vision and three freshmen who have signed on to expand the legacy, will look to build on last season’s march to the NCAA Tournament Second Round. It was a benchmark the program had missed for nearly a decade, and the Gamecocks’ current leaders are determined to at least match the Sweet 16 effort of that 2005 squad. Goffi is confident that his team will go as far as those three commit to leading it.