By Jeff Owens | Photo by Allen Sharpe
Kevin Epley made his South Carolina women’s tennis team a promise, and Ingrid Martins plans to make sure he keeps it.
“If we win we are going to Disney and I have never been there,” the senior from Rio de Janairio said. “Kevin has made a promise … so he has to keep it.”
That’s what champions do, they go to Disney World. Or at least say they are, a long-running tradition among sports champions.
Epley’s Gamecocks (23-3) are going, for real. They travel to Orlando Tuesday to play in the NCAA Elite Eight at the 100-court USTA National Campus. They will play Duke Friday at 7 p.m. (televised by The Tennis Channel), with the winner advancing to the Final Four. If they win it all, the No. 3 Gamecocks, will go to Disney metaphorically. Or, if Epley keeps his promise, for real.
“We can say that and mean it, ‘We’re going to Disney World,” he says in his best high-pitched Mickey Mouse voice. “For real.”
The Gamecocks, the No. 4 national seed, earned the right to play for the national championship after winning their first three matches in the NCAA Tournament, including a 4-0 dismantling of No. 13 Southern Cal. Saturday. They have won 13 straight matches, including 10 straight in the SEC, the last three earning them the SEC Tournament championship.
After losing in the Sweet 16 the past two years, Epley’s team advanced to the final eight for just the third time in program history. Now they believe they can win it all, especially after knocking off No. 1 Georgia in the finals of the SEC Tournament and beating 17 ranked teams.
“We’re not really focused on Mickey Mouse right now,” Epley said. “We are going to go down to Orlando and take care of business.”
“We are thinking big,” Martins said. “We are not done. We are not satisfied with the Elite Eight, we want to keep going. It’s going to be very nice to get to Orlando. We have a lot more to prove. People may not believe us but we believe in ourselves and we think we can beat anybody.”
It’s that kind of drive and determination that has gotten the Gamecocks to this point. After an emotional celebration following the SEC championship — one of the team’s chief goals — Epley was not entirely pleased with his team’s approach entering the NCAA Tournament. He wanted to see his players come back down to earth and refocus.
Though they routed North Florida 4-0 in the first round, Epley had a tense meeting with his team the following morning to address what he called some internal issues. The result was a 4-1 victory over Virginia to return to the Sweet 16. But Epley was still not entirely pleased, saying his team still had plenty of work to do and could play better.
So they went back to work, practicing and working hard every day, as a team and individually. They had meeting and after meeting — “We are a meeting team, we meet as much as we practice,” Epley said — and team activities away from the courts.
“We had a big team meeting about standards and a couple of other things we had to get through that were kind of out in the air,” he said. “We got through that and had a few days of practice, they did some team activities, we talked to the seniors a little bit and they provided the leadership we needed.”
By the weekend, Epley felt better about his team, and they proved him right, dominating Southern Cal. Martins and partner Mia Horvit set the tone by thrashing the No. 1 doubles team in the country, 6-1. Megan Davies and Rachel Rohrabacher then rallied from a 4-2 deficit to clinch the doubles point.
Rohrabacher, Martins and Horvit delivered straight-set singles victory to finish the match, with Martins and Horvit wrapping up their matches almost simultaneously on side-by-side courts.
“They have really come together as a team,” Epley said. “They are coming together as a unit and they are very intrinsically motivated as a group. They don’t need anybody to motivate them and when you get that scenario, you are doing pretty well. I wouldn’t count them out of any match moving forward.”
Epley credits his three seniors for leading the way. Martins, Rorhabacher and Paige Cline played key roles on three straight NCAA Tournament teams, including two that made the Sweet 16. They have helped keep the team focused and have done their part on the court.
Martins, the No. 4 ranked singles player in the nation and the SEC Player of the Year, is 28-6 and has won the last eight dual matches she has completed. Cline, ranked No. 17 in singles, has won 11 of her last 12 finished matches. And Rohrabacher has been a steady presence and a spark in singles and doubles.
“We have three seniors that want to keep on going and they provide really good leadership and they are such key players for us,” Epley said. “They have been through it before, the round of 16 last year, the round of 16 the year before, hosted all four years. They don’t want to leave their career not going the distance.”
The trio has been complimented by junior Mia Horvit (No. 81 in singles), who leads the team with a nine-match winning streak, and Davies, who teams with Rohrabacher to give the Gamecocks two top-40 doubles tandems. Junior Silvia Chinellato and sophomore Kennedy Wicker have also contributed.
“For me, it’s my last season, so I have a little extra push,” Martins said.
Her teammates have the same drive and focus — and the same goal.
“We are definitely locking in because we are doing it for each other,” Horvit said. “We have put in so much work on and off the court so we really like seeing that success come off. It really just means a lot.”
More even than a trip to Disney.
“I really just want to be at the courts until the end and just come back home with the trophy,” Martins said.
“We’re going to get down there and focus on tennis, and we’ll see what is presented after the tournament as far as Mickey Mouse and the rest,” Epley said.