Collecting Aces On and Off the Court
by Eddie Hughes
Fresno State women’s tennis coach Ryan Stotland has a love-love formula when recruiting players to his program. He wants to make sure they have two loves — academics and tennis — in that order.
The results are positive. In the spring 2015 semester, four of the eight members of the team earned perfect 4.0 GPAs, and the team had a 3.73 GPA overall. From 2010-14, the team earned the NCAA’s highest possible Academic Percentage Rate (1,000), which measures eligibility, retention and graduation. And the Bulldogs have won two straight Mountain West championships.
The 4.0 GPA club includes 2015 graduate Tanya Murtagh, sophomore Mayar Sherif Ahmed and seniors Annie Watts and Sophie Watts, the reigning Mountain West player of the year.
“When I’m recruiting, I make sure academics is a priority,” says Stotland, the fourth-year coach.
“I always look at their high school grades and find out if their work ethic is good. I tell them when they come in, they are student-athletes and the ‘student’ part is the first part of that term. Being an athlete is the bonus part.”
This season, all eight players on the Bulldogs roster are from overseas — four from England, two from Egypt, one from Russia and one from Sweden. “Some of their schools are so hard they’re prepared for college life right away,” Stotland says. “They work so hard, and international kids know it’s a good opportunity so they make the most out of it when they get here.”
Twin sisters Sophie and Annie Watts, from Hitchin, England, are both biology majors. Sophie wants to work in conservation, and Annie wants to work with animals. As a doubles team, they were unbeaten in the Mountain West regular season, and Sophie advanced the NCAA Round of 32 in singles play.
“Coach understands the first reason we come to college is to get an education,” Sophie adds. “There is always competition between myself and my sister, and that extends to the classroom especially. We always want to do better than each other.”
Senior Rana Sherif Ahmed, who is also on track to graduate with honors in economics, says the success is by design. “It is not a fluke,” says Rana, whose younger sister Mayar earned a 4.0 GPA this past semester. “We work hard on and off the court, and that is what makes us perform well in the classroom.”
It makes sense that Stotland puts such emphasis on academics. While playing for New Mexico from 2003-06, he became the first four-time Mountain West All-Academic honoree in school history while triple majoring in accounting, marketing and business and graduating magna cum laude. On the court, he was ranked No. 2 in the nation.
And on the court, Stotland expects this Fresno State team to be his strongest yet. The Spalding G. Wathen Tennis Center was outfitted with a brand new playing surface this summer, just in time to welcome a transfer from Idaho who was the Big Sky player of the year, plus two of the highest ranked players from England.
“Winning the Mountain West title is great, and that’s our goal every year, but we want to look bigger and do more,” Stotland says. “We want to reach new heights in the NCAA tournament.”
Stotland believes the talent is in place, and with a strong work ethic, this team could develop into a special one. “At the end of the day, I always like to ask them, ‘Did you get better today?’ If the answer is yes, you’ve done your job. If the answer is no, you need to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
Academics and Athletics Rise Together
50% of the team earned 4.0 GPAs
3.73 overall team GPA
6 of 8 players named Intercollegiate Tennis Association scholar-athletes
Perfect 1,000 NCAA four-year Academic Percentage Rate
Ranked as high as No. 33 in nation
6-0 in Mountain West
Sophie Watts, MW Player of the Year
Mayar Sherif Ahmed, MW Freshman of the Year
To view the team’s schedule, visit www.gobulldogs.com.