Skip to main content
Partner logo
Mobile Icon Link Mobile Icon Link Mobile Icon Link Gamecocks+

April 10, 2015


Expectations. Challenges. Process. Life Lessons.

These words have defined the 2015 season for South Carolina men’s tennis, which under fifth-year head coach Josh Goffi is a still in its infancy, the culture hardly mature enough to manage lofty expectations, let alone do it under duress. Still the Gamecocks refuse to be defined by the one word in that group that has loomed over them all season long – challenges.

“We can sit here and name the things that happened to us this season and carry them around like a flag, telling everyone `It’s okay, we had all these things to deal with,’ or we can move forward, and that’s our goal,” head coach Josh Goffi said. “It’s a choice that we have, and it’s one of the hardest things in life. True champions in life are never the victims of things; they are always the ones who know that your response to adversity is how you become successful. That’s what we are striving for right now.”

The 2015 season was awash with expectations for the Gamecocks. A trio of seniors who laid the foundation of Goffi’s program was primed to go out with a bang. Andrew Adams was coming off an All-America season in which he embodied the `win anyway’ mentality, shrugging off injury and personal challenges to reach the round of 16 at the NCAA Singles Championship. Thiago Pinheiro had powered through the fall playing the best tennis of his career. Kyle Koch was matching maturity with the limitless competitive fire that has catapulted him up the record books among the winningest players in program history in both singles and doubles.

The leadership of those three was shaping the program and the talented youth that filled Goffi’s preseason singles lineup – sophomores Andrew Schafer and Sam Swank along with freshmen Harrison O’Keefe, Thomas Mayronne and Gabriel Friedrich. The roster was small, but packed with talent ready to carve its place in school history. Goffi had what he wanted, a strong first five in singles and another group eager to develop through the battle for time in the No. 6 spot.

The dominoes began to fall even before the first serve went up in January, though. Issues with international paperwork kept the team’s newest Brazilian, Friedrich, off the courts for the spring semester. A knee injury forced Adams out early and persisted throughout the season, hampering his mobility – a key element in his game. Such was his love of and dedication to the team, Pinheiro refused to come out of an early-season match after experiencing some pain, only sit out for several weeks due to the resulting injury. Illness struck the team early in the SEC season, and just as the Gamecocks were finding their way back, O’Keefe suffered a foot injury that continues to have him sidelined.

In tennis, these events affect the players left in the lineup as much as those taken out of it, especially when they occur high in the lineup. With Adams and Pinheiro, South Carolina’s projected Nos. 1 and 2 singles entries, respectively, sidelined, nearly every other Gamecock had to absorb the extra pressure that comes from playing a spot or two higher in the lineup than he is comfortable.

“There’s been a lot of pressure for the guys that are healthy,” Goffi said. “They know that those are the spots we have to win. But three – Koch, Schafer and O’Keefe – went out there and embraced that pressure, that challenge of moving up in the lineup, saying `That’s fine, higher in the lineup is where I want to play anyway.’ They had a really positive, growth-minded mentality about the whole thing.”

Koch won eight of his first nine matches this spring and five of his last six for a 14-7 record in dual-match play, including a 9-4 mark in the No. 2 spot in the lineup. Schafer, the ultimate counterpuncher who uses his athleticism and conditioning to overcome any style of play from his opponent, matches Koch with 14 dual-match wins, which include a team-high five in SEC action. Despite missing four matches and counting due to injury, O’Keefe, whose competitive fire matches Koch’s is just behind the senior with 13 dual-match victories, including a 3-1 record in SEC play.

Once Adams and Pinheiro returned to the lineup, both eagerly jumping back in the moment they were declared healthy enough to compete, they had to adapt to the new reality their injuries imposed on their games. Ever the mastermind, Goffi went to work on preparing them to compete mentally as much as physically.

“The number one thing with those guys coming back from injury was `Do your best and compete as hard as you can.’ We changed a few tactical styles – if it was a movement-based injury, play a little bit bigger; if it was an upper extremity, adjust their stroke to something that doesn’t hurt as much – both things that push guys outside their comfort zone. But the expectations were just trying to be better in match management and giving them goals to work on that day so they could get better later in the season.”

Later in the season is now, and the Gamecocks are ready to put the obstacles – injuries and others – behind them so they can focus on the renewed mission: Get to the NCAA Tournament.

“A successful finish to this season would be coming through to make it to NCAAs, and our team is completely capable of that,” Goffi said. “The way a tennis season runs is no different from the way a tennis match runs. We’ve had highs and lows and things that we should have had and didn’t get. But carrying around that baggage in a tennis match – that regret of `I should have done this or could have done that’ – drags you down and doesn’t allow you to move forward to do the things you need to succeed in the end. We’ve cut the baggage and said `We are going to move forward.’ Generally, you don’t really reap the fruits of your labor until the end. We just hope that there is enough season left right now, meaning these last regular-season matches and the SEC Tournament, for us to turn that corner.”

A master motivator, Goffi has spent the season getting each Gamecock to understand that mentality for himself and then help his teammates come to terms with it as well. It would be easy for younger Gamecocks to resign themselves to just developing their games and looking ahead to next season, where a clean slate is much more appealing than an uphill sprint to the finish line. The seniors simply do not have that option, and those three, who have had to pave their own way for their entire careers, will have to impart that maturity and urgency onto their teammates.

“Getting all eight guys on the team to realize that together, with one `win anyway’ mentality, we can be a force to be reckoned with is a tough task, but that is what we’re doing right now.” Goffi said. “Our seniors really came back in the last few matches to become our shining stars again, which the younger guys said was the thing they needed to see all year. Everyone is ready now to move forward, and we’re excited to see where it can take us.”