For a varsity tennis team only in its second year of NCAA Division III play, the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s men’s tennis team has had quite a run. Ending the season with an almost perfect 9-1 record, the team took Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference title by beating defending champion Penn State Behrend.
The woman’s tennis team is even younger, having just completed their first year as an official varsity sport.
Look no further than the support of the student body when assigning credit to making tennis a varsity sport at the university. It’s taken seven years preparation to transition the teams from provisional status to varsity, but before that, the tennis teams—and most other Franciscan sports—existed at the club level.
Athletic director Chris Ledyard said the process over the years was to keep adding new teams to Division III standards while following a provisional agenda.
“It brings in more options and competition to the school,” Ledyard said. “The NCAA is taking you every step of the way and checking results at the end of the year to see if you measure up.”
More options means more prospective students are looking at the University of Steubenville with the intent to join and play on varsity teams. In addition, a higher level of recruitment to a broader range of new students has taken place.
With the switch to varsity, the seriousness of the tennis program took on a new light.
“With a club sport, you practice and compete,” explained Sarah Bartley, sports information coordinator at FUS. “With varsity, you say 'yes' to a greater mindset and a greater education of the sport.”
Both teams are young and fresh, with rosters consisting of almost all freshmen and sophomores. The first year for the women, and second for the men, brought with them a higher level of competition for the players. Those first few years provide a good starting base for coaches and administrators to figure out and see where the competition lies within specific conference.
There were challenges and changes to overcome as well.
“We needed to present the team as serious, which is basically what we got the first year,” said Ledyard.
Both teams worked to build strong rotation players to make the team stronger when someone on the active roster wasn’t able to play.
The varsity level also meant new facilities. In partnership with the city of Steubenville, FUS added six new tennis courts. Along with the courts came a renovation of the city park, partnership with the United States Tennis Association, and new summer programming for local area youth, headed by FUS coaches and assistants. Other area high schools have gotten some use out of the new courts as well, Ledyard said.
The future is bright for both men’s and women’s tennis teams at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Just ask the Penn State Behrend's men's team.
“Now we like to tease them,” Ledyard said. “We'll say, ‘You guys are the beginning of our reign of terror!’”