Sitting at No. 25 in the latest rankings, owning a 9-1 record and coming off the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in nearly a decade last season, Mississippi State’s women’s tennis team is hitting milestone after milestone under head coach Darryl Greenan. Perhaps the best team in the program’s history, led by a star who is probably the best player they’ve ever had, the Bulldogs begin SEC play this weekend as one of the hottest teams in the conference. MSU hosts Tennessee on Friday at 3 p.m. and No. 7 Georgia on Sunday at 1, with all teams involved thinking about the postseason.
MSU’s place in the hierarchy of college tennis took some time to acquire, years of effort and planning on the part of Greenan and his staff. Hired seven years ago, Greenan was charged with building a program with fairly little history and no recent success to speak of into a contender. It took time and patience, but now, his plans are coming to fruition.
“It was a matter of time and recruiting efforts,” Greenan said. “Since I’ve been here, we’ve been adding the pieces to the puzzle slowly. It didn’t happen as fast I’d have liked it to, but we had to get the right people in place.”
Getting those right people wasn’t always easy, especially early on when Greenan had to sell players on a vision that had not yet become reality. But slowly, with the help of assistants, MSU got the necessary players on campus. When Greenan took over, he had a roster with possibly no player who could take down someone on another of the SEC’s top teams. Over time, he started adding those who he thought, ‘Yeah, they could be playing for Florida or Georgia or anyone else.’
He got the true No. 1 players, athletes capable of beating nearly anyone in the country on any given day. An example of how far the roster has come is Georgiana Patrasc, currently the No. 3 singles player for MSU who was immediately the No. 1 when she got to campus on pure talent alone, having starred ever since. The goal of the elite programs is to have six players who could all be the No. 1 somewhere, and slowly but surely, Greenan is getting his team to that point.
And currently at No. 1 for MSU, Jasmine Lee is the 11th-ranked player in the country, and incredible accomplishment. It takes far more than one player to make an entire team competitive, but when MSU added a player of Lee’s caliber last year, it changed the dynamic of a roster that had been on the brink of something special.
“Last year, once we felt like we had the depth to compete at all positions, that kind of really started it,” Greenan said. “Getting Jasmine into that lineup made a huge difference for our program.”
That “huge difference” came out to an almost unreal 52-spot rise in the rankings. Greenan has always taken pride in getting the most out of the roster he has, enough so that he was proud of previous seasons which may not have looked great on paper, but he knew he got the most out of the team. Now, as the talent has increased, so too has the ceiling risen. Assistant coach Sachin ‘Shaq’ Kirtane has had a tremendous impact since being hired, not just as a coach, but as a widely-respected recruiter helping bring that talent in to Starkville.
Between the two, MSU’s rise through the rankings has happened quickly the last couple years. Now, the key for the Bulldogs is to keep improving and keep getting better. Even at No. 25 in the country, there are still eight SEC teams ranked higher, and Ole Miss is right behind them, making 10 SEC teams in the top 30 of the country. The conference slate is a gauntlet, but if MSU can play its best and knock off some elite teams, they could be in position not just to make the NCAA Tournament, but to be a host team later this spring.
“We’re happy with where we are right now, but I can tell everybody is hungry to show what we can do in the SEC,” Greenan said. “We went through some tough years, and it’s very rewarding. We stay hungry to get the most of out of what we have, and now having more talent makes it that much more exciting. We have talent, but we also have talent that works hard. That means something. Talent that works hard, talent that’s coachable, talent that’s fun to be around. When you have that, you know what to expect to each weekend.”
He knows what to expect from his players, and he also knows what he hopes for from the fans. With renovations to the A.J. Pitts Tennis Centre complete as part of the Nusz Park project, Greenan has what he considers to be one of the best six-court facilities in the country, and one deserving of being filled with fans for MSU’s matches. The metal bleachers have been replaced with chairbacks, while more seating has been added to the ground level on either side of the courts.
And of course, tennis remains the only sport on campus where, late in the match, players from the team will find their way into the stands with all the fans.
“I’m so excited about this team,” Greenan said, “and I care about them so much, I just think that I’d like to see other people recognize that. I think we have more to show than ever and I hope people will come out and see that. If anybody has any interest in sports, in watching competition, in Mississippi State athletics, in tennis, it’s great to come out and see.”