When he needed to steer IUP in a new direction, Larry Peterson looked past domestic models and put his faith in foreign imports.
Peterson’s tennis program, sputtering not so long ago—only one win in 2008, the year before he was hired—has since executed a dramatic U-turn and emerged as a national power behind a distinctly international cast. Led by players from Thailand, England, Canada, and Mexico, the Crimson Hawks are as dominant as they are diverse.
IUP finished 22-8 this spring to set a school record for victories, posted the highest national ranking in the program’s history (29th), and advanced to the round of 16 at the NCAA Division II tournament for the second year in a row before falling to sixth-ranked Abilene (Texas) Christian.
Peterson engineered this remarkable resurgence by pursuing players who possessed passports as well as the requisite tennis skills.
“I knew from the very beginning that recruiting was going to be critical to helping turn things around, and so I worked very hard at that,” said Peterson, an assistant at Bucknell before coming to IUP. “I found it easier to get interest from foreign players because not only were we unestablished, but the Division II concept sometimes makes it harder to go after American players—some kids have a built-in bias that they really want to play Division I. So it was just easier for me to get interest from foreign players who were looking for opportunities.”
The result is a multinational lineup. Sophomore Tabtip Louhabanjong, the Hawks’ No. 1 player, hails from steamy Thailand but spent her last two years of high school in Anchorage, Alaska, as a participant in a study-abroad program, relishing the snow and frigid temperatures. Sophomore Ranvita Mahto, who resides in Burlington, Ontario, was born to Indian parents in the United Arab Emirates. Juniors Emilia Osborne and Katie Eaton live in England. And sophomore Erika Schnaas was born in Mexico to a German father and Mexican mother. Freshmen Tanya Timko and Abby McCormick are the lone homegrown players.
These products of disparate cultures get along famously. Indeed, the Crimson Hawks are so inseparable that Osborne likens them to seven best friends, a bond that no doubt contributes to their success.
“We have a really close relationship,” said Louhabanjong, who earned an NCAA Elite 89 award at the national championships in Louisville, Kentucky, in recognition of her cumulative 4.0 grade-point average (IUP’s aggregate 3.74 GPA ranked highest among the 16 teams that qualified).
“It’s not just on the court. We hang out together all the time.”
Louhabanjong endeavors with minimal success to teach her teammates Thai. Spanish, Arabic, and French might also be heard on road trips.
This babel of languages stems from Peterson’s decision to recruit globally once he accepted the coaching reins in the wake of that one-win season. Peterson wasn’t scared off at all by the program’s woes; on the contrary, he embraced the challenge.
“It was very attractive to me, the idea of having an opportunity to sort of build from the ground up,” said Peterson, the reigning Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference West and Atlantic Region Coach of the Year. “That was a key to the recruiting process, finding these types of players who were very open to the idea of trying to build something special.”
Osborne and Eaton slapped on their hard hats when they arrived in 2010 and immediately went to work constructing a sturdy foundation.
Their impact on the program they’ve helped resuscitate is reflected by the numbers in the IUP record book. Osborne has won 75 doubles matches and Eaton 69, good for first and second place on the school’s career list, with a season still remaining for each. Eaton ranks second all-time in singles victories (59), eight behind the record set by Yvonne Niederbracht in 2005. And Osborne and Eaton each have 128 combined singles and doubles wins, tied for second after Niederbracht (130).
Incredibly, both Brits were blissfully ignorant of the program’s plight when they came to IUP.
“It was a bit like, ‘Oh my goodness, we have a lot of work to do,’” Eaton said. “But I knew our coach was going to be recruiting other players and that we’d improve. We’ve achieved amazing things in a short period of time.”
The Crimson Hawks went 17-9 and qualified for the NCAA tournament in Eaton and Osborne’s rookie season of 2010. IUP took another step forward last year, finishing 21-7 and advancing to the NCAA’s round of 16 for the first time with a stirring 5-4 victory over Slippery Rock in the regional final. Every other match had been decided, so players and coaches from both teams surrounded the court where Osborne and Elisabeth Yetiskul were engaged in a tense, winner-take-all showdown. Teammates mobbed Osborne after she whacked an inside-out forehand winner to seal a 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 victory and punch IUP’s ticket to nationals.
“Every single point was so crucial, and then to have Emilia come through in the third set, that was just incredible,” Mahto said. “It was one of those cliché moments where everybody rushes up to her and hugs her.”
There was no comparable moment this season: IUP simply bludgeoned its regional foes, beating both West Liberty (West Virginia) State and Charleston (West Virginia) by 5-0 scores. Louhabanjong whipped Marcela Torres 6-0, 6-0 at No. 1 singles to clinch the Hawks’ victory over Charleston and secure a berth in the round of 16.
The notion of winning regional titles and contending for national honors would have seemed unimaginable four years ago, before Larry Peterson began searching the whole world over for the players who ultimately transformed IUP tennis. Due largely to their foreign imports, the once-sputtering Crimson Hawks are now humming like a Maserati.
“Being part of a team that turned the program around, being part of that changing process, that’s what’s really exciting,” Osborne said. “From a team that was huge underdogs to now…well, sometimes it’s a bit difficult to believe how far we’ve come.”