South Carolina and Georgia were deadlocked at 2-2 with the 2019 SEC Championship on the line, and Mia Horvit was in deep trouble.
Horvit, ranked No. 84 in the nation at the time, was down 5-1 to No. 64 Lourdes Carle in the first set of the SEC Tournament. That’s when head coach Kevin Epley had a stern message for his No. 3 singles player.
“This match is coming down to you,” he told Horvit.
The junior from Palm City, Fla. didn’t flinch.
“Being put in those type of situations, pressure is a privilege,” Horvit said.
She had already lost to Carle once last season, dropping a 6-3, 6-4 match that ended with the two fiery competitors in a heated argument at the net. At the SEC Tournament in College Station, Texas, Horvit was down again, trailing Lourdes 5-1 when she made a major adjustment and started to mount a comeback.
Instead of hitting the ball to her forehand and backhand, Horvit started driving the ball down the middle, forcing Lourdes to hit more balls and wearing her down. She rallied to take a 6-5 lead and then won the first set in a tiebreaker. She took the second set for a 7-6, 6-3 victory to lead the Gamecocks to an upset over No. 1 Georgia and the first SEC Championship in program history.
Though teammate Ingrid Martins won the deciding match at No. 1 singles, it was Horvit’s victory that turned the tide.
“If Mia hadn’t come back and won that set and taken that match, we would not have been SEC champions,” Epley said.
It was the type of moment Horvit thrives on, and the type performance she has delivered throughout her career.
“I have been dealing with that my whole life, even in juniors,” Horvit said. “When it gets to a really important, key moment, I don’t let the whole entire environment get to me. I kinda hone into my core and just focus on what I need to do and just take it one step at a time, and eventually I will get things turned around.”
Horvit helped lead the Gamecocks, who open the season Saturday at NC State, all the way to the NCAA Elite Eight last season and a No. 4 national ranking, the highest in program history. She finished 24-5 in singles, including 17-3 in dual matches and 6-1 in the SEC. In doubles, she teamed with Martins to go 29-8 (16-5, 8-1 in the SEC) to earn All-American honors and finish the season ranked No. 1 in the nation in doubles.
A two-time All-American and three-time All-SEC performer, Horvit is looking to build on an already fabulous career in her senior season. She enters the spring season ranked No. 27 in the nation and will likely play No. 1 singles for South Carolina. She was 13-7 in ITA tournaments in the fall, including a 7-7 record against ranked opponents. She capped the fall season by beating No. 9 Jada Hart of UCLA in December.
Epley expects her to continue her rise and emerge as one of the top players in the country.
“She’s a player that plays better as the season goes on,” he said. “She’s very, very competitive and very driven. I expect her to get better and better. She just thrives off competition so the more she is competing, the better she plays.
“She’s going to be carrying the load for the team.”
Martins began last season ranked No. 48. By the end of the season, her first playing No. 1 singles, she had climbed all the way to No. 4. Senior Paige Cline (No. 2 singles) began the year unranked and finished No. 16. Epley expects a similar surge from Horvit.
“She likes to play 1, to be honest,” Epley said. “There is no question she can. It’s a matter of how hard she works, how hard she pushes herself and how she kinda feels in that role. She will be playing tough competition every week. We expect that she can play with anybody.”
Horvit’s goal is to follow in Martins’ footsteps, cracking the top five in singles and doubles, making the NCAA singles and doubles championships, leading South Carolina to another SEC championship and helping the Gamecocks make another deep postseason run, hopefully to the program’s first Final Four appearance.
“The biggest thing right now is just not focusing too much on the results and rankings, just focusing on the little details that I am working on with my coach and my teammates, and just making sure we are doing the little things to help us achieve our goals,” Horvit said.
To get there, Horvit will have to continue to shine in big matches. She’s a strong baseline player with exceptional ball-striking skills and a versatile all-around game. More importantly, she is a fierce competitor who doesn’t back down from any challenge.
“She’s a very, very strong competitor,” Epley said. “She’s a game-day type of kid and competition doesn’t scare her. It energizes her. Adversity at match time generally doesn’t affect her. It kind of pumps her up. She just has a really healthy outlook in terms of what competing is. It’s not a threat to her, it’s an opportunity.”
Horvit credits her parents for her competitive nature. Her mom, Marilyn, played college tennis, while her dad, Adam, played golf collegiately. Her three siblings are also athletes.
“Everyone in the family is pretty competitive,” she said. “My parents have always been by my side making sure I have everything I need and making sure I give it my all.”
Horvit, a high-energy, enthusiastic player, has had a fiery demeanor and affinity for big moments since she walked onto campus. Ranked No. 11 in the 2016 recruiting class and No. 76 in the world junior rankings, she was 27-12 in her first season and advanced to the quarterfinals of the NCAA Singles Championships to become South Carolina’s first Freshman All-American.
Her mentally tough, resilient approach continued last season. She won three straight matches in the NCAA Tournament and was on the verge of another monumental comeback when the Gamecocks lost to Duke in the Elite Eight. She lost the first set to Duke’s Kelly Chen (No. 21), but rallied to win the second set 7-5 and was surging in the third set when Chen needed medical attention and the team match ended before they could resume play.
“It’s really a mentality of just loving it, loving the battle,” Epley said. “There are so many of those girls that get intimidated by the battle or the fear of exposure and losing and laying it on the line. She doesn’t take losses real hard, she doesn’t curl up into a ball, she doesn’t personalize things. If she loses, it doesn’t mean she is a bad player. A lot of players take big losses hard, so they have a harder time laying it on the line. She just kind of brushes them off and moves on.”
With the loss of three seniors from last year’s squad, it is now up to Horvit and fellow senior Sylvia Chinellato to lead the 2020 team. They will be joined by two-year starter Megan Davies, who climbed from No. 125 to No. 28 after a stellar fall season, junior Kennedy Wicker and a strong freshman class.
After watching Martins, her former roommate, and Cline lead last year’s group, Horvit is ready to assume the mantle and lead the No. 9 Gamecocks to another strong season.
“She is a very strong leader in terms of holding people accountable and disciplined and making sure they are adhering to the standards of our culture,” Epley said. “It’s about lifting up your teammates and she’s working on that and coming along.”
“The biggest thing that we take away from last year is just being together and having that unity and playing not just for ourselves or the coaches or the university but for the whole team and for each other,” she said. “I’m just checking in with my teammates every day and just making sure everyone is holding each other accountable. That is definitely a big key to making sure that we are on the right track to hopefully win another SEC championship and an NCAA championship.”