By Joe Scalzo
The six Youngstown State players who competed in Sunday’s Horizon League championship match hail from six different countries on three different continents.
Two of them — Russian Margarita Sadovnikova and Ukranian Marta Burak — are from countries on the brink of war. The coach, Mickael Sopel, is from France. One of his best players (Annina Brendel) is from Germany.
And yet, when you ask Boardman High graduate Carolyn Jesko to name the secret to the Penguins’ success this season, she points to team chemistry.
“It’s a melting pot,” she said, smiling. “We obviously have cultural differences but the thing that brings us together is tennis.
“We definitely clicked as a team.”
For the first time in school history, that team will compete in the NCAA tournament. Fresh off their first conference title, the Penguins (14-11) will play at Virginia (21-5) in the first round, which begins May 9.
“It’s unbelievable,” Jesko said. “It’s definitely the best accomplishment of my tennis career, individually and as a team.
“It’s an incredible feeling, working so hard not only this year but my freshman year to my sophomore year to my junior year. Just the way the season has come out so far and will hopefully continue, it’s just really, really great.”
Jesko is one of three seniors on YSU’s team, along with Sadovnikova and Gimena Puppo (Uruguay). Burak is the lone junior and there are two sophomores — Brendel and Liberty High graduate Victoria Ferry — and two freshmen, Dominika Lackova (Slovakia) and Nehel Sahni (India).
YSU nearly advanced to last year’s NCAA tournament, losing by two points in the deciding game. Sopel, who was an assistant coach on last year’s team, said the Penguins used that loss as motivation for this spring.
“All season, the girls that came back were talking to the freshmen about losing and how they’re very hungry to win the tournament this year,” he said. “It was a big factor and we saw that in the final.
“Those players that were juniors and seniors, they really stepped up and they were able to bring home the win for us.”
The Cavaliers earned the No. 3 overall seed — the highest in school history — and have advanced to the Sweet Sixteen in each of the past three years. This is Virginia’s sixth straight NCAA tournament appearance.
“When you draw a top-16 team, it’s always going to be a tough match,” Sopel said. “We’ll have our chances. We have a lot of talent on our team and I believe on a given day, if everyone plays their best tennis, you don’t know what can happen.
“The momentum could go our way and we can create some opportunities and put some pressure on them and see the way it goes.”