Fresno State athletics have long been the pride of the Central Valley, but that pride mostly concerns football, basketball, baseball and, at the most, softball.
Coaches pride themselves on finding talent in the Valley, but in some sports, like tennis, it is virtually impossible and many times requires outside help.
“Tennis is a worldwide sport, and we want to make sure we have the best team in the country,” said head women’s tennis coach Ryan Stotland. “It’s not as big in the Valley as other sports, and we just get the best talent we can.”
With eight players on its roster, the women’s tennis team has six international players and two out-of-state student-athletes.
“Unfortunately, tennis isn’t the biggest, and it needs to grow, and that’s what we need to promote here,” Stotland said.
Even without the vigor student-athletes born and raised in the Valley bring to the university’s sports programs, women’s tennis was a top 20 team last year with its international helping hand.
After beating top programs like UCLA and Duke and remaining undefeated the past three seasons in Mountain West conference play, Stotland said there is a reason behind the staff’s recruitment of international players.
“Tennis is a unique sport. It’s an international sport,” head men’s tennis coach Luke Shields said. “In the United States, it’s probably the 10th biggest sport, but internationally it might be the second-or-third biggest sport. In some countries, it’s the biggest sport.”
Shields said his players are grateful for the opportunity to attend college and play tennis in the United States because their living situation is so much better and they actually want to be here.
As far as the team consisting of mostly foreign student athletes, Shields said there are two ways of looking at it: embrace it and realize that it’s what makes the program so special at Fresno State or only look at the negatives.
The nine-man roster of the men’s team consists of eight international players, and one natural-born citizen, Bailey Gong, a proud Exeter native and Smittcamp Family Honors College member.
“I think it is really cool to be able to actually represent the Valley not just as a student-athlete at Fresno State, but also since I am truly representing the Valley as being Valley born and bred,” Gong said. “I get the honor of continuing to wear the V on my back now literally instead of just figuratively.”
Gong said that seeing all the talent around the world and getting to learn a bit of culture from each of his teammates’ home countries has been eye-opening and humbling.
Shields said Gong is one of the best players the Valley has had in a long time.
“I think there will be some changes in the future to draw more Americans,” Shields said. “Obviously, we want more local talent. We all want to keep things central here, but it’s just not realistic, I don’t think, at this point.”