Head coach Will Marino steps off the court during a women’s tennis practice on a 90-degree April day. He sits down on one of the shaded concrete benches behind the courts and puts his racket down. As usual, he’s wearing a dark tennis cap and a pair of opaque sunglasses.
A speaker behind him blasts “Through the Wire,” by Kanye West, before fading into “God’s Plan,” by Drake. Marino’s assistant coach, Jimmy Fernandez, moves the team into doubles drills. As most of Marino’s players – who call him “Will” – would tell you, he is an understated coach, rarely expressing too much excitement or frustration.
Anna Maite-Kaplan, a freshman news and documentary major, said that, “(Marino) is very chill, but he also takes it very seriously, which is what Division III sports should be like.”
But Marino – however well he hides it behind the sunglasses – is excited, and for good reason. In his 19th year at the helm of Chapman’s tennis program, and with a brand-new, $7.5 million tennis facility, Marino has overseen a group of 14 women – with 12 freshmen – to a No. 29 ranking in Division III women’s tennis. Before two losses against top-25 opponents, the team had won eight straight matches.
“I think (Marino’s) really excited right now, even though he doesn’t show it,” said Izzy Oedekerk, a
freshman film production major. “We have so much potential.”
next year, we’ll do even better”
For the past two years, Marino had struggled to maintain involvement in his men’s and women’s teams in the absence of tennis courts on campus. Players had to drive 10 or more minutes to practices and home matches at Anaheim Tennis Center and Anaheim Hills Racquet Club. Participation on both men’s and women’s teams dropped from around 12 players to six or seven each.
Last season, the women’s tennis team won two of 19 matches. This year, the team has already won nine of 17 matches, and has a chance to hit double-digit wins and secure a winning record for the first time since 2014. But the success hasn’t surprised Marino.
“I knew the level of the freshmen coming in,” Marino said. “I knew we were going to be a good team.”
Maite-Kaplan and Oedekerk said they’ve been surprised by the team’s success.
“When coach (Marino) told us, ‘You’re top 30 now,’ we were like, ‘What?’ We knew this year that the team is really good,” Maite-Kaplan said. “But I think next year, we’ll do even better because this year, everyone was so nervous that we took a while to relax.”
Many of those freshman players have competitive experience at the highest level of youth tennis.
Maite-Kaplan, who started playing tennis when she was 6, played at the John McEnroe Tennis Academy in New York City. She said she was ranked around 30th in the under-18 group in New York City and 90th in the New York Metro Region. The environment was plagued with cheating and overinvolved parents, Maite-Kaplan said.
“(There are) a lot of parents getting involved, screaming at you while you’re playing,” Maite-Kaplan said. “It’s not like you have a team to back you up, but it’s made me really competitive since I was a little girl. It’s taught me a lot of skills that I use in my everyday life.”
Oedekerk said she had planned to attend a Division I school and try to make it as a professional tennis player. But after two wrist surgeries and fracturing the balls of her feet, Oedekerk re-evaluated what she wanted out of her college career. She turned down Division I offers in favor of a film education at the Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, following a similar path to that of her father, a veteran film writer and director.
“Coming here has been way different because you’re finally on a team,” Oedekerk said. “You’re working together and encouraging each other, whereas before, I was on my own.”
Oedekerk, Maite-Kaplan and Lisa Trofimova, a freshman accounting major, said they were surprised by the number of freshman players on the team, but what surprised them even more was how well the team has meshed.
“There’s zero drama, everyone loves each other and supports each other with everything, no matter if it’s
tennis or other things,” Oedekerk said. “I know (it’s rare) especially with all girls, there can always be some drama.”
Nicole Fouts, a junior psychology major and the team’s most senior player, said the enormous size of the freshman class was initially daunting.
“At first, I was kind of skeptical about it,” Fouts said. “But we don’t really care about age on our team, we’re all very close.”
Maite-Kaplan said the fact that the team is largely freshmen allowed players to bond over their shared experience. The team frequently hangs out together outside of tennis practice and matches, often heading to the Anaheim Packing District or Pizza Press for dinner.
Oedekerk added that her doubles partner Jordan Kraft, a freshman, can sometimes send the team into hysterics with her signature “laugh attacks.” But the team shares the pain along with the happiness. Trofimova said the 90-degree practice, which featured a mile-long run beforehand, was “horrible.” Factoring in the two days of back-to-back matches April 6 and 7, Maite-Kaplan – who had yet to begin her six-hour slate of classes – went a step further.
“Physically and mentally, I’m done,” Maite-Kaplan said after the practice. “I’m dead. I can’t feel my body right now.”
With just one match left in the regular season, the team’s focus is on the playoffs – and the future. While Marino said he is excited by the team’s young core, he recognizes that Division III coaches like himself often struggle to keep that base together for all four years.
“I’ve got a good core, but the question is, can I keep them?” Marino said. “I’m hoping if they stay for four years, we’ll be really good, but it’s hard.”