Feb. 27, 2010
By Steve Lansdale
Lauren Longbotham Meisner thinks her team, as a group, has gone crazy.
The head coach of the SMU tennis team gathered her troops in the offseason and asked when they wanted to schedule their daily conditioning work.
"I said to the girls, `when do you want to do your conditioning?'" Longbotham-Meisner said. "They said 6 a.m. I don't even like to talk to (husband) Tod before 10 a.m. But we get up every day and run in the dark at 5:30 a.m. When you run in complete dark, it's kind of calming.
"But my team is kind of insane. These girls do the extra work that's needed. I've gone into Dedman Center and seen them there and actually have had to tell them `stop running.'"
The desire to work out before morning classes might be virtually unique among college students, but whatever the Mustangs' reasoning, it's working. That exact personality quirk -- the desire to get up to run before sunrise and then put in extra work above and beyond what is prescribed by the SMU coaching staff -- has the Ponies winning, and winning a lot.
The Mustangs, as a team, are in better physical condition this year. More importantly, they're better on the court, too. Heading into this weekend's matches in Columbia, Mo., against Louisville and Missouri, the Ponies are off to a sizzling 10-1 start in dual matches, highlighted by a 7-0 blanking of crosstown rival TCU. The obliteration of the then-No. 23 Horned Frogs boosted SMU to No. 21 in this week's Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) national rankings.
That SMU beat its rival in Fort Worth should have come as no surprise -- each team has the raw talent to beat the other -- but the dominance surprised even the Mustangs' confident coach.
"It was a huge surprise to me," Longbotham-Meisner said. "When I put together this team, I knew we could do something like that, but a lot of things have to happen to get a win like that. That's the best team performance I've seen since I've been at SMU. We've had good performances before, but to be as dominant as we were, and have all six girls on the same page ... I've never seen us play like that."
Running roughshod over the Horned Frogs was hardly a complete shock. After all, included among the Ponies' 10 victories in 11 matches was a win over then-No. 35 Tulsa and solid teams from BYU, Tulane and Oklahoma State. Their lone loss came against then-No. 31 Florida International, and took place before two players who now are counted on as regular contributors -- Edyta Cieplucha
and Katarina Vankova -- were eligible to compete (because of the paperwork that goes along with determining eligibility for international players).
SMU's singles strength is at the top of the rotation, where the Ponies have unblemished records at the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 4 spots. (Not all matches are played to a full seven points of the teams agree to call a match after on team earns the four points needed to win the match.)
Individually, sophomore Marta Lesniak leads the Mustangs, boasting a 9-0 record when playing in the Ponies' No. 1 spot. Longbotham-Meisner said that last year's ITA Southwest Rookie of the Year has a chance to be among the premier players in the entire nation.
"Marta is one the best -- if not the best -- players in all of college tennis," Longbotham-Meisner said. "But for her to win at that level, she has to believe that. I push her, because that's one of her goals. She has asked me to do that."
Sophomore Aleksandra Malyarchikova has won all eight matches she has played at No. 2, and Longbotham-Meisner said Malyarchikova brings a mental toughness that is vital to the team's success.
"`Sasha' (Malyarchikova), at No. 2, had a close match (against TCU), but that's her element, that's her thing," Longbotham-Meisner said. "She could be down, 5-1, in the second set after losing the first set, and I'll still be convinced she's got it. We don't call her `the Bulldog from Belarus' for nothing. She's just incredibly tough."
Lesniak and Malyarchikova also make up the team's top doubles pair. Some players arrive in college having never played doubles, but the doubles point (matches are scored based on six points for singles matches and one point for doubles) is something in which Longbotham-Meisner takes great pride.
"I grew up playing doubles and won a state championship in doubles (at Groesbeck High School in Groesbeck, Texas), so I've always thought doubles really sets the tone for the match," she said. "I have always wanted us to be known, since I've been here, as a good doubles team. We have girls who came here having never played doubles, and to see someone like senior Casey Kennedy, who came as a freshman who knew nothing about doubles, and watch her grow into an awesome doubles player ... that's something I'm really proud of."
Longbotham-Meisner is in her seventh year at SMU, where she met Tod, who then was a member of the athletic department staff and now works in public relations in Dallas. She spent three years as an assistant coach, and then held the head coach position on an interim basis for a year before taking the helm full-time in 2007.
"I was a good high school player, but a very average college player," said Longbotham-Meisner, who played collegiately at Louisiana Tech. "These girls have more talent in one pinky finger than I ever had.
"I took notes (while an assistant) about what I liked, and what I didn't like. Every year, I learned something. Every player who comes here educates me, too -- about tennis, about life, about something else."
While she formulated her plan for constructing and leading a team, one thing that got to Longbotham-Meisner repeatedly was the level of acceptance she encountered in regard to the performance of the SMU program. When SMU athletic director Steve Orsini hired her, on the recommendation of former assistant AD Carlton Cooper, as the full-time coach, she set about changing that perception.
"We could stay where we are, or where we were -- we were around (No.) 45 every year, which people said was `good ... for SMU,'" she said. "We might get to conference, might win conference, but we weren't Florida. We weren't Georgia. We weren't UCLA.
"The fact that being No. 45 was acceptable bothered me. I don't want to do anything unless I can win."
The whispers, she said, already were there. SMU is a place to launch a career, to springboard a coach to one of the nation's marquee programs.
"I don't want this to be a stepping stone job," Longbotham-Meisner said. "I don't see any reason this can't become something really big. People have said if you win here, you can go get a big-time job. But why can't this be the big-time job?
"Look at Baylor: small school, a private school, it's in Waco ... then they get new courts, change their recruiting, and now look at them (No. 5 in the current national rankings). We're a small school, a private school. We're in Dallas. We have the Bush library coming. The campus has undergone a renovation. We have a great on-campus tennis facility. There's no reason we can't do the same thing. I was very encouraged by the fact that we have an AD who says he wants SMU to be top-25 in everything. I don't want a pat on the back, because I do better under pressure. I would like to be in the top 25 even if he hadn't said it. Well, the top 25 was last year. Now it's time to shoot for the top 10."
To reach that goal, and her ultimate goal of competing for a national championship, Longbotham-Meisner knows she needs to keep challenging and developing her young team -- Pavi Francis is the lone senior on a roster that includes three freshmen and two sophomores among its starting lineup -- and recruiting more. Much of her recruiting has been international; seven of the 11 players on SMU's roster hail from outside the United States. Recruiting internationally requires schools to go through unbelievable amounts of paperwork and red tape, a monotonous task that Longbotham-Meisner said wouldn't be possible without SMU assistant director of student-athlete services Broadus Whiteside.
"Broadus is (amazing)," she said. "If he leaves, I don't know what I'll do. He's just as much a part of the team as anyone else. You think about it -- when someone sends a transcript from another country, I can't read it. I take it to him, he finds someone who can translate it, he makes sure we're following every rule and have all of the documentation ... I've heard coaches tell horror stories about their compliance departments, but nobody knows compliance like he does. When Marta got in, he took a real personal satisfaction. I absolutely can't do my job without him."
The Ponies will try to extend their current six-match winning streak this weekend when they face Louisville and Missouri in Columbia, Mo. Although neither team is ranked in the ITA's top 75, Longbotham-Meisner said the fact that her team is winning and climbing in the national rankings means the Mustangs can ill-afford to play poorly.
"It doesn't matter who we go against -- a team like TCU, or an unranked Missouri team," she said. "We've got to be ready for the match of our lives. We're still underdogs. We're still fighting to get to the top 10, but now we've got targets on our backs, so we've got to be able to balance that."
The Mustangs' winning start to the season reveals the intense competition within the team -- players compete for spots in the lineup through challenge matches in practice -- and reflects their coach's über-competitive nature.
"I'm Methodist, and I'm giving up losing for Lent," Longbotham-Meisner said, laughing. "I'm not sure that's acceptable to the church, but that's my plan.
"I just want to continue to build on the success that we've had."