Seniors leave mark on tennis program

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The end of the 2016-2017 tennis season also concluded the journey for two of SVSU’s most accomplished players. Seniors Izabella Ismailova and Ana Pico Garcia played their final matches April 2, but not before making a lasting impact on the program.

Ismailova, a native of Almaty, Kazakhstan, was named to the All-GLIAC First Team three times throughout her playing career and was named to the All-GLIAC Second Team in 2014.

“I always wanted to study abroad,” Ismailova said about her recruiting process. “One day, I went to an educational exhibition in Kazakhstan and met representatives from SVSU. They represented SVSU so well, they were energized and talked very enthusiastically about SVSU compared to other representatives. I asked if they had a tennis team, and they gave me contact information for head coach Jennifer Boehm. From there, I was recruited by the best coach ever.”

Garcia, a native of A Coruña, Spain, transferred from Ohio Dominican University after the school cut the tennis program. While a member of the Panthers, she was honored with an All-GLIAC Honorable Mention. As a part of the Cardinals team, she was awarded once again with an All-GLIAC Honorable Mention and for her senior season, she made All-GLIAC Second-Team.

She also won SVSU Comeback Player of the Year at the annual SVSU Athletics award show due to a tendon injury on her left wrist over the summer. She ended up having the best singles season of her career with a 15-3 overall record, including finishing the season on a 14-match winning streak in singles competition.

“After playing two years for Ohio Dominican, the university decided to cut the tennis program, so I made the decision to look for another college to keep pursuing my tennis career,” Garcia said. “I knew that the SVSU team had been barely making the tournament, and they were far away from the top, but (Boehm) explained to me that she was trying to build a stronger program. So, I took the challenge and decided to come here and do something important for my last two years.”

The process of bringing in both students to play for SVSU was a route that was uncommon for Boehm. With Ismailova, Boehm noted that the pair held Skype sessions after receiving her résumé and playing video. Garcia was then added for the 2015 season.

Even though the tennis duo came at different times, Boehm said that the two made an immediate impact on the program.

“Izabella’s freshman year, we were really struggling as a program, and she came in as a clear number one player,” Boehm said. “She was able to compete with every team at that level, which is something we hadn’t been able to do without her. When Ana arrived two years later, she came into a team that had significantly more talent, but she really elevated the energy and competitive nature of our team. She was also a seasoned GLIAC player with two years of success under her belt.”

Garcia also noted the transition from playing in Spain to playing collegiately in the U.S.

“We do not have sports in high school, so we play on club teams and develop our games with our coaches,” Garcia, a graphic design major, said of the differences between sports in Spain and the United States. “I have been a really competitive person since I was young, and I was ranked around the best 1,000 players of all ages in my country. In the last year before coming to college, I worked really hard, and at the same time, I kept studying for my finals. When I left Spain, I was ranked No. 120 in the country.”

Both players, Boehm said, made a lasting impression on the tennis program. When Ismailova first joined as a freshman, the team finished just 5-11. Now, the team just wrapped up its best season in over 16 years, going 15-5. Boehm isn’t surprised.

“When you combine their contributions, you can see exponential growth for our program in recent years,” she said. “They each have very different styles of play and personalities, but each of them has left a legacy of competitiveness and success. We are now a highly respected GLIAC opponent and fiercely competitive every time we step on the court. That is in large part due to their vision, talent and efforts.”

Ismailova, an international business major, knew that she could help make the transformation of the program a reality. In return, the SVSU community made her feel welcomed.

“From my first year, (Boehm) and my teammates were striving to have a better tennis program and to improve their game on the court,” Ismailova said. “Due to our hard work, we finally made this year our best season. I want to thank (Boehm), my teammates, my family, my professors and my friends for their support, life lessons, unforgettable emotions and for helping me to become a better version of myself.”

Garcia is returning as an assistant coach next season while she finishes her degree.

“As an international student, I am far away from my family pretty much all year,” Garcia said. “My parents have made big efforts to send me here, and they have never been able to see one of my matches in the States. So being part of the tennis team for me is like having another family. (Boehm) is a really important figure for me too. She helps me every time I need it, and she is always there for us. If there is someone to commend for the success and how well the program is doing, it is definitely our coach.”

Boehm will certainly miss the two players, but the impact they leave will continue in the program for many years.

“As a coach, it’s bittersweet,” Boehm said. “I am extremely proud of what they have accomplished, but it’s difficult to see their time with us come to an end. They have become family, and we will really miss them. Fortunately, we will get a little more time with them off the court as (Garcia) plans to help with coaching the team in the fall and they both will finish their degrees at SVSU this December.”