The NCAA and its member institutions often refer to "student-athletes" but the front side of the term isn't often highlighted in a sports section. We asked officials from the Southland's Division I universities to point us toward their best and brightest — the teams that made classroom performance a priority.
Many of the best tennis players at the college level have been raised in hyper-competitive environments. They spend countless hours practicing to perfect their serves, volleys and strokes while perpetually focused on rising in the rankings.
So it goes in sports where the outcome rides solely on the individual. With no one to depend on but themselves, they tend to be meticulous in their planning, from the way they warm up and practice to their nutrition and rest.
At Cal State Long Beach and Cal State Fullerton, these characteristics carry over from court to the classroom, enabling the women's tennis teams to annually rank among the school's top-performing sports programs in academics.
Morgan McIntosh, a senior at Fullerton, doesn't find that achievement surprising. "I think that's just how tennis players are," she said. "We just naturally have that motivation in ourselves."
Last fall, Fullerton tennis barely missed landing the sports program's top academic spot, losing out to another sport that focuses on individual accomplishment. The women's golf team earned a 3.24 grade-point average; the women's tennis team had a 3.23.
"A lot of them are perfectionists; they're overachievers," said Dianne Matias, Fullerton's first-year coach. "It's just ingrained in the sport."
Even with the coaching change, the tennis team kept an academics championship among its goals.
"We want that title," McIntosh said, noting that Fullerton officials expect the school's athletes to perform well in the classroom.
At Long Beach, Coach Jenny Hilt-Costello says her team has its own motivation. For the last five years, the 49ers have earned the Intercollegiate Tennis Assn.'s Academic Award — while also winning five consecutive Big West Conference championships.
"They tend to be self-motivated and driven kids," Hilt-Costello said, "and that does carry over into the classroom."
Professional tennis is an option for some of the players, but they would be unlikely to earn big prize money so they realize the importance of a college degree.
The same striving-to-be-best culture that drives the women as tennis players also boosts the team's academic performance.
"We're competitive on the tennis court," Fullerton junior Kalika Slevcove said, "but we're also competitive in the classroom."