Competitive freshman class creates new culture in turnaround season

Led by Julia Courter, the Gophers’ freshman class has taken the team to new heights this season.

Freshman Julia Courter serves the ball April 22 at the Baseline Tennis Center.

Hannah Strickland, Daily File Photo

Freshman Julia Courter serves the ball April 22 at the Baseline Tennis Center.

Charlie Armitz

The “freshman phenom” has been a theme in the local sports scene this season.

Struggling Minnesota teams have turned to first-year players — such as Gophers basketball freshmen Rachel Banham and Andre Hollins and the Timberwolves’ Ricky Rubio — to revive fan bases and win games.

Quietly, the Gophers women’s tennis team has managed the same type of success. But there is no “freshman phenom” to credit — just a three-member freshman class that has initiated a new culture on and off the court.

Minnesota has won 15 matches in 2012, nearly doubling its eight wins from last year. Its three freshmen — Julia Courter, Tereza Brichacova and Aria Lambert — have been mainstays in a deep singles lineup that has served as the backbone for those 15 wins.

“We certainly wouldn’t have had the season we’ve had to this point without them,” head coach Tyler Thomson said.

Success in the singles lineup tells only a small fraction of the story. Led by the energetic Courter, the freshman class has instilled a competitive fire and unity that the team previously lacked.

Courter is the team’s vocal leader, but she is also its most vocal critic.

“She is one of those rare people who’s not afraid to challenge her teammates to be better,” Thomson said. “That really has made a tremendous significance on our team this year.”

Thomson said Courter’s words sometimes generate a negative reaction from her teammates. But they resonate much more than Thomson’s.

“If you want the team to keep pushing themselves to be better, at some point the coaches’ requests fall on deaf ears,” Thomson said. “When it’s someone who they are peers with, it can be a much more powerful thing.”

Seven months into the season, Thomson’s players have become more than peers. They’ve spent entire days together, traveled across the country and grown to care for each other.

Courter said she expected her teammates to be her close friends before the season began. Some teammates, such as her roommate Lambert, are closer than others.

Brichacova, who came from the Czech Republic, found the adjustment more difficult. She said she wasn’t used to competing on a team where teammates cheer each other’s actions on the court until the last point is played.

The three freshmen have grown close to each other and to their teammates as the season has progressed.

That hasn’t stopped Courter from speaking her mind.

“There’s a price you have to pay to be better, and Julia understands that,” Thomson said. “She’s probably the most courageous person of all, because she is willing to put her relationship with the girls on the line sometimes.

“That’s not an easy thing to do, especially for someone who’s a freshman.”

Handling adversity

Thomson said he expected his trio of freshmen to have a major impact on a team that returned just three upperclassmen.

He expected them to face adversity as well — and midway through the Big Ten season, that expectation was met.

After losing her third straight singles match March 24 at Michigan State, Courter had what Thomson called an “emotional breakdown” in front of her teammates, in which she vented her recent struggles.

The team hadn’t played a home match in a month, and Courter hadn’t seen her parents in a long time.

Courter said the episode made her feel a lot better for the team’s next match at Michigan, in which she posted the team’s lone singles win.

“I think just talking to everyone and hearing what they had to say reminded me that I have a family here, so I don’t need to rely so much on my family back home,” Courter said.

Courter won matches against the nation’s Nos. 20, 15 and 21 teams before an injury slowed her progress.

Brichacova, who joined the team in January, started the season 7-1 in singles before losing five of six matches.

She stayed in Minnesota while the rest of the team traveled to Penn State and Ohio State in early April — a decision Thomson said “probably wasn’t the best thing for the team.”

It was a growing pain — the kind every freshman goes through. But it was also “a moment of truth” for her, Thomson said — a moment that paid immediate dividends.

“I … talked to a lot of people — parents, random tennis friends,” Brichacova said. “All of them kind of helped me go through and realize what’s important and what’s not.”

Brichacova is 3-1 since the road trip, including two wins against ranked teams. She has moved from fifth in the singles lineup to third and has elevated her play in the wake of injuries to Courter and Alexa Palen.

As a whole, the Gophers have demonstrated a level of resilience that was absent from previous years’ teams.

“In the past few years, we often didn’t come out of slumps,” Thomson said.

‘Friends for a lifetime’

From a competitive standpoint, the Gophers hardly resemble the team that posted a 12-28 Big Ten record in its last four seasons. The fire that Courter and Brichacova display on the court has made a huge difference in that regard.

But off the court, the freshmen set aside their tennis to create a social scene within the team. It’s an environment that has translated into better results on the court as well.

“I think all three of us together have brought a funny, friendly, family-type vibe here,” Courter said. “We’re just kind of all laid back. … I think that’s really helped.”

Courter said she has grown to care about each of her teammates, which in turn has helped them develop a working relationship on and off the court.

“We’re all friends for a lifetime,” Courter said. “We all talked about coming to visit each other in different countries, and I think before this year, it wasn’t there.

“It’s not because they’re not all great people — it’s just people weren’t pushing them to be there for one another. Now this year, everyone wants to be there for each other.”