“We have a lot of new faces,” Epley said. “We have (freshmen) Sarah Hamner who won the (ITA All American) National Championship. It becomes very exciting for people to come up to her and watch her fight. Her energy and her ability will captivate many people.
“(Junior) Ayana Aklic is another new face, who has transferred from Maryland. We recruited her when she was a junior player, so we had a bit of a relationship. She’s very good. From a universal tennis perspective, that’s the fifth and twelfth highest-rated players in the nation.”
Akli and the talented freshman class, which also includes Misa Malkin, Gracie Mulville, and Chloe Narbonic, joins a group of six returning players who helped the Gamecocks in their 26th consecutive NCAA Tournament last year.
While it’s great to have so many talented newcomers, the Gamecocks will also rely on returning players who have endured the rigors of the SEC game and the postseason.
“(graduated student) Megan Davies (2021 Second Team All-SEC) is definitely making a difference for us,” Epley said. “We are also looking for (sophomore) Allie Gretkowski, who’s been pretty much injured since she got here. She’s played some great doubles and we’d love to see her take it a step further and get her going in singles again.
“(Juniors) Elise Mills and Ana Cruz are currently wildcards. We’ll see who comes to the fore.”
Sophomore Lindsey Tulenko and junior Kendall Bank will also compete for opportunities in the lineup.
Chemistry and passion
“New faces and good team chemistry will definitely make people stand out on this team,” said Epley. “This group is very close.
“It comes from the girls we recruit. We try to recruit good kids. It also comes from the culture of the program. We try to create cohesion between them. We don’t focus on one person. Everyone has to stick to things We keep people approachable, and we value the standard, which serves as a beacon and glue for the team.”
In recent years, the Gamecocks have been known for expressing their passion on the field, and Epley noted that it’s not something contrived.
“It’ll be loud,” Epley said. “You can have fake loud, but around 2015-2016 it became real. It’s built on a very real desire to compete. There’s a robust energy to win. We call it live energy. We’re here to win , and that comes out when we win points. It comes out in momentum shifts with those points that can change the game. With new kids, it can be hard to get them to that place. With people like Sarah (Hamner), she came in as a Gamecock She is very noisy by nature, just like Ayana.
“You can be loud and still be a good sport. We want to represent our school, our team and ourselves in such a way that you think, man, they’re really competitive, but we’re not bad people who clap when you make a double mistake.”
The Gamecocks had some ups and downs last year, but still made it into the postseason, which is expected after 26 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances. Epley wants to see the team continue to fight in the face of adversity.
“Last year we started SEC season 1-5, which was ridiculous for us,” said Epley. “It was a very small margin in a lot of those games that we were losing. We were up there against the best, but things didn’t fall our way. Then we won our next six SEC games and later moved on to the SEC semifinals.
“We just kept stopping and turning around to have a fairly successful season all the way up to the NCAA tournament where we didn’t play very well. I think we learned from last year that we can take some hits and still have a good So it will be interesting to see what our new children can bring.”