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Triumphant in tennis: Young Fresno State women’s team continues tradition of head-heart-hustle

Galina Bykova volleys with a teammate during a practice at Fresno State.
Galina Bykova volleys with a teammate during a practice at Fresno State.

In 2012, when Ryan Stotland was hired to lead Fresno State Women’s Tennis team, he wanted a motto that was catchy, simple and true.

He credits the seniors on his first team with finding the right words: “Head-Heart-Hustle.”

“It means that, with those three things, we can go out and be better than we were yesterday,” he said.

Under Stotland, the tennis teams at Fresno State have compiled many good yesterdays. Their achievements are impressive:

A long winning streak. A conference championship. Victories over traditional powerhouses. Excellence in the classroom.

For the 2016-2017 season, a young squad — more than half are freshmen — faces the challenge of adding to the list of accomplishments.

“I know these girls don’t want to take a step back from where we’ve been and where we’re going,” said Stotland, who put together his own impressive record as a college student.

Playing for the 2016-2017 season are:

▪ Freshman Georgia Lawson and sophomores Olivia Noble and Emma Wilson from England

▪ Freshman Juliane Triebe from Germany

▪ Freshman Katerina Stloukalova from the Czech Republic.

▪ Senior Galina Bykova from Russia

▪ Freshman Abbey Watanabe from Duvall, Washington

Many of the Europeans were among the best players in their countries, and some of the top tennis schools in the United States recruited them, Stotland said. His 2016 recruiting class was ranked in the Top 25 nationally, according to www.tennisrecruiting.net.

“Being 24th, and ahead of a lot of national powerhouses, shows where our program is going,” Stotland said.

He looks for intelligence in players.

“When they can understand the tactics of tennis,” he added, “It helps a lot.”

For example, Wilson is a math major considering a career as an accountant. She decided to attend Fresno State because of Stotland as well as the facilities and support available to student-athletes.

Wilson also likes the Bulldogs’ record of success including:

▪ Since 2000, the Fresno State’s women tennis teams have had losing seasons only twice (2010 and 2011).

▪ In the 2012-2013 season, Stotland’s first year as head coach — the Bulldogs went 14-8 overall (6-2 in conference). One highlight was going 7-1 at home. Another highlight was beating Pepperdine University, then ranked No. 33 in the nation.

▪ In the 2013-2014 season, Fresno State won the Mountain West championship and Stotland was named Mountain West Coach of the Year. The Bulldogs started 1-7 in dual matches, but came back to win 12 straight on their way to an overall record of 16-9 (5-0 in conference).

▪ In the 2014-2015 season, Fresno State went 18-5 overall (6-0 in conference).

▪ In the 2015-2016 season, Fresno State went 19-9 overall (4-0 in conference). The Bulldogs beat former national champion UCLA, then ranked No. 9 in the nation. At one point in the season, Fresno State was ranked No. 20 nationally and finished at No. 43 (the highest ranking in Stotland’s tenure).

▪ Since 2014, Fresno State has achieved a three-year win streak (17-0) in the regular season against Mountain West opponents.

▪ The players have collected individual honors under Stotland. In 2013, Rana Sherif Ahmed was named Mountain West Freshman of the Year. Her sister, Mayar Sherif Ahmed, was Freshman of the Year in 2015 and Player of the Year in 2016, both in the Mountain West. In 2015, the conference named Sophie Watts Player of the Year.

▪ The team’s grade point average has increased each year under Stotland, rising from 3.5 to 3.76.

“I tell the players that they’re students first and being an athlete is the bonus,” he said.

Inexperience is the team’s early weakness. But, Stotland said, “Once we get our experience, I know we’re going to be very good.”

The players will get valuable time on the tennis court playing in tournaments before beginning dual matches in 2017. The team’s strength is character.

Returning players Bykova and Wilson believe the freshmen will be strong players from the start.

“They’re fresh and excited, and they’re such hard workers,” Bykova said.

Wilson agrees.

“Ryan did a really good job of recruiting,” she added. “And I think we’re going to do well.”

Bykova came to the United States from St. Petersburg, Russia in order to play tennis while getting an education.

“Back home, it’s either you play or you study because we don’t have college sports, unfortunately,” she said. “Here, it’s exciting. There’s so much competition.”

Bykova is earning her B.A. in mass communication and journalism, but her top goal after graduation is to coach tennis in the United States.

Stotland started coaching when he was age 12.

“I’ve basically been a coach ever since,” he said.

He first swung a racket when he was age 2, and tennis was a natural sport for him — his father coached women’s tennis at Idaho State University.

Stotland walked onto the tennis team at University of New Mexico and became the No. 1 player. He won two conference championships and achieved a No. 2 ranking nationally in doubles.

Stotland put together an equally impressive academic record. He graduated with honors from University of New Mexico with a degree in business administration and three majors: accounting, marketing and general management.

For about two years, he played on the professional circuit. But the constant travel and isolation from family members and friends wore on him.

“Everyone thinks it’s so glamorous, but it’s not,” Stotland said. “I realized my actual passion wasn’t with playing, but with the coaching.”

He was the assistant coach at the University of Arizona before coming to Fresno.

During a recent practice at Fresno State, Stotland moved around the tennis court in a black jacket with white lettering that read “Head-Heart-Hustle.”

Stotland wants players who will put the words into play — “not only on the tennis court, but in their academics and lives,” he said.

“Whatever they’re doing, they give 100 percent — that’s why we’ve had so much success.”

SHEDULE FOR THE 2017 SEASON

Home meets are held at the Spalding G. Wathen Tennis Center

11 a.m., Saturday, Feb. 4 vs. University of Utah

Noon, Saturday, Feb. 18 vs. University of Oregon

11 a.m., Sunday, Feb. 19 vs. University of California, Santa Barbara

5 p.m., Wednesday, March 8 vs. Middle Tennessee University

10 a.m., Friday, March 10 vs. Brigham Young University

5 p.m., Friday, March 10 vs. Cal Poly

5 p.m., Monday, March 13 vs. University of Texas, Arlington

11 a.m., Sunday, April 9 vs. San Jose State University

11 a.m., Saturday, April 22 vs. University of Nevada, Reno

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