Talent is only small part of USC tennis turnaround

Short roster found its stride in SEC play on way to No. 17 ranking

Special to The StateMay 8, 2013 


    WHO: No. 17 USC (18-10) vs. No. 53 UNC Wilmington

    WHEN: Friday

    WHERE: Duke, Durham, N.C.

    NEXT: If USC wins, it faces the Duke-Coastal Carolina winner

    OF NOTE: USC’s Josh Goffi was named SEC Coach of the Year, and players Andrew Adams, Tsvetan Mihov and Thiago Pinheiro were selected All-SEC second-team.

South Carolina men’s tennis coach Josh Goffi got an up-close and personal look at what top-flight tennis was like at a young age. His father, Carlos Goffi, was the long-time coach of former top-ranked player in the world John McEnroe. The younger Goffi can remember times he had to sleep in his sister’s room because McEnroe was sleeping in his bed.

Goffi tried to absorb as much knowledge as he could from his dad, and, without a doubt, it’s paying dividends. With a season that didn’t have many expectations — especially after Goffi dismissed Nick Jones, which left the team with seven active members on the roster — Goffi has transformed this Gamecock team into his own.

In his third season at the helm, Goffi was selected SEC Coach of the Year and has South Carolina in the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive season after finishing a program-best tied for third in the SEC with a 7-5 mark.

“It was such a great honor,” Goffi said. “It meant that much more because it came from my peers. Being a young coach and earning that type of respect has really been great. It wasn’t something I was expecting at the beginning of the year.”

Goffi said he never was as good a player as he was a listener. He absorbed as much as he could from his father and being exposed to the type of talent that included McEnroe among other elite players.

“I was always around the game watched a lot of tennis and never really thought much about it,” Goffi said. “I definitely think I got my high standards from watching my father coach the guys he was fortunate to coach.”

The Gamecocks are 18-10 overall and will face UNC-Wilmington in first-round action at 10 a.m. Friday in Durham, North Carolina. The winner will face the winner of host Duke and Coastal Carolina on Saturday.

It was a remarkable turnaround for a South Carolina team that many considered not the most talented bunch but a group of hard workers. It might be an understatement to say Goffi and the players were a little concerned having seven players available. In an ideal situation, Goffi would carry 10 players even though eight can travel on SEC weekends.

USC struggled early. But once players found their rhythm, they were as good as anyone in the country.

“I’ll be honest, this season was much better than we expected,” team MVP Thiago Pinheiro said. “We had some issues in the fall, and we understood we had little room for error or injuries with such a short roster. We aren’t the most talented team out there, but we fight hard and love this team and university. A lot of that pride is what has carried us this far.”

Goffi and Pinheiro point to the same moment when the Gamecocks’ season began to change.

They were coming off of a 5-2 loss to Wake Forest and trailed N.C. State but rallied for a victory. Pinheiro was down a set and two break points in the second set before rallying for a 6-7, 6-4, 6-4 marathon match to seal the win over the Wolfpack.

“That was the turning point of our season right there,” Goffi said. “To see Thiago lay it on the line like that and not quit carried over to the rest of the team. He’s not out there playing for himself. He’s playing for his school and teammates, and our guys picked up on that.”

They won the next two matches — including one over Friday’s foe UNC-Wilmington — but lost to Virginia Commonwealth before the start of SEC play. They opened league play by going 1-3 with the lone victory coming over Florida, a team they hadn’t beaten since 2001.

After dropping matches to top 10 teams Tennessee and Georgia, the Gamecocks won six of their final eight to finish with its best season since 2005. They are ranked No. 17 in the country — their highest ranking since March 31, 2009.

To make the turnaround that much more remarkable, it came against a loaded SEC that qualified 12 of its 13 playing members for the NCAA tournament.

“We played some of the best teams in the country,” Goffi said. “I don’t know if we’re as talented as some of them, but we go out and fight with every ounce of energy we have. This has without a question been one of the most spirited and hardest working teams I’ve been around. They give it everything they have each night, and as a coach that is all you can ask for.”

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