All of Southern’s teams have been under an NCAA postseason ban for more than a year, but none has felt its impact as much as the women’s tennis team.
The Jaguars will go for their sixth consecutive Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament title this weekend in New Orleans, knowing that even if they win they will be unable to accept the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA’s for a second consecutive season.
Last season there was hope that the university might be able to supply the NCAA with sufficient documentation on student-athletes’ Academic Progress Rates to get the ban lifted in time for the NCAAs.
But two days after the SWAC tournament and just a few days before the Jaguars’ annual “watch party” for the unveiling of the NCAA field, coach Jeffrey Conyers told the players they couldn’t go and runner-up Jackson State would go in their place.
“Honestly it was a really sucky feeling,” senior Gabrielle Moore said. “Being from a small conference, I tell people all the time that players from the Big Ten or the SEC or the ACC or the Big XII can be in the Top 25 and never be in the NCAA tourney. It’s an honor for us being from a small conference and a small school.”
Conyers fulfilled his obligation as a member of the NCAA championship committee to work the tournament in Athens, Georgia.
“It was heartbreaking to the young ladies on the team,” Conyers said. “It was difficult for me going to administer the tournament knowing a couple days before we could have been there, but those were the cards we were dealt. It was part of the maturity process for the young ladies. They were very mature and handled the situation we were dealt really well.”
The players did receive rings for their conference championship and they were recognized during the first home football game last season.
Moore and fellow seniors Camara Davis and Morgan Taylor experienced the NCAAs when they went to Ole Miss as freshmen and to Texas A&M as sophomores. Though they can’t make another trip to the NCAAs they can leave with four conference titles in four years.
“That’s a big deal for us,” Moore said. “To get four rings would be amazing.”
Top-seeded Southern, which won all seven of its SWAC matches in the regular season, will face the winner of Friday’s match between No. 4 Alabama State and No. 6 Grambling in the semifinals at 9 a.m. Saturday.
The tourney is scheduled for City Park, but Conyers said the Hilton Riverside is an alternate site in case of rain.
The Jaguars lost just five individual matches in their seven SWAC matches and won all 21 doubles matches in the regular season.
Conyers called Southern’s double teams its “bread and butter” and said this team’s depth “is probably our greatest attribute.”
Moore and Darnesha Moore (no relation) form one doubles pairing and the others feature Davis and Taylor and Laura Syori and Kendall Bunch. Amanda Materre replaces Bunch in the singles lineup.
“This year’s lineup probably has been one of our strongest in my career,” said Conyers, who has coached nine women’s SWAC champions and four men’s champions since becoming head coach at his alma mater in 2002. Southern dropped men’s tennis in 2009.
Gabriella Moore said this is the “best-rounded” team she has been on at Southern.
“We honestly believe we could place any girl at any spot and still win,” she said.
Because of the NCAA probation, any seniors-to-be could have transferred after last season and become immediately eligible, but, Moore, who will graduate next month, said she never considered transferring.
“I would never leave Southern,” she said. “This is best team I could ever ask for. I could get another offer to go anywhere else and I wouldn’t leave my team for any other opportunity.
“I have a wonderful coach, a wonderful team and a wonderful university. With all the growth that I have experienced here I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
Follow Les East on Twitter @EastAdvocate.