COLUMBUS, Ga. (WTVM) - The Columbus State men's tennis program has become a Division Two national power.
They won an NCAA championship two years ago and were cruising along to what looked like another title in 2020 until they hit a roadblock called COVID-19. Now, the Cougars are on hold, and with a large crew of players from foreign countries it’s made things, well, complicated.
Sophomore Christian Garay is from Columbus, but several of his CSU tennis teammates from all around the globe are also still in town thanks to travel restrictions. But they've found a way to keep things going, thanks to Chris Schuster's privately-owned tennis courts at Cooper Creek Park.
“We have five guys working out at one apartment and so it’s been pretty competitive, but it’s been fun,” Garay said. “I feel like we’ve gotten a lot closer because of this experience, I think nobody is going to forget it.”
“We’re all super close so it wasn’t that hard,” said CSU sophomore Tommaso Schold. “We always hang out together, practice together, and if we have a problem you still have four people here on your team.”
The Cougars were ranked number one in the nation in the final NCAA rankings released a couple of weeks ago, but that's not the same as winning it on the court. On the other hand, CSU won the Indoor Nationals, which is a national title of its own, providing extra motivation to stay in game shape.
“We swept all the way through so I think we were pretty comfortable being the number one team and how it finished,” Garay said. “We were confident that we were going to do it again at Nationals.”
Schold echoed his sentiments. “I know that we didn’t have the chance to play in May, but finishing number one in the nationals meant a lot because in our minds we’re still in-season time, so we’re going to practice and still be the best players and the best team that we can be.”
Schold's family back home in Livorno, Italy is doing better as the pandemic eases up, so he's found a way to deal with the separation and chaos.
“Keep everything normal,” said Schold. “Don’t think about what is going on and say, “Okay, look at the other side. You still have schoolwork, you still have a chance to practice, live your life like nothing is going on.”
Garay had a teammate on his mind, a Lady Cougar tennis player who’s back home overseas and stuck in quarantine.
“It’s Candice Paya’s birthday, so I just want to wish her a happy 23rd birthday. I know she would rather not be in France in quarantine but we’re out here playing for her, so have a great birthday.”
Meanwhile, the wait for the summer amateur tennis tour to resume continues. With any luck, they’ll hit their goal of mid-June. Either way, Cougar players say they’ll keep hitting the courts to stay sharp.
“We have to be ready for anything,” Garay said. “We’re tennis players so we want to be ready for whatever’s available, but we’re just making do with what we have.”