Jan. 16, 2014
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – It is first-serve time for the spring portion of the 2013-14 Marshall tennis schedule, and coach John Mercer has to be enthused, albeit with a team that includes four freshmen and a sophomore.
After all, teaching tennis has to be easier than dealing with the U.S. Immigration Service or the NCAA Clearinghouse, right?
“We’ve got seven (players) now,” said Mercer, whose team starts spring play Saturday through Monday at the UVa Winter Invite at the Boar’s Head Club in Charlottesville. “We’re going to need a lot of patience. Four of the seven are freshmen, and two of those freshmen are first-semester freshmen.
“It’s going to be one of those years.”
As usual, the veteran Herd coach has lined up a challenging schedule, one with seven foes in dual matches from the Intercollegiate Tennis Association pre-spring 75 rankings. And there are another four in the ITA top 60 that Marshall could face in the Conference USA Tournament in mid-April.
But that’s getting ahead of the story. What’s interesting is how Mercer got from the five Herd players of this past fall to the current seven, which at least will give MU a full complement for six singles and three doubles matches.
Freshmen Derya Turhan and Anny Pomyatinskaya were originally penciled in for the Herd in the fall. Neither made it to campus, and the machinations they and Mercer went through to get them enrolled for this semester were trying to say the least.
Turhan came to Marshall from Bad Salzuflen, Germany. Pomyatinskaya is from the Winter Olympics city -- Sochi, Russia, by way of IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. The latter is a cousin of tennis star Maria Sharapova.
Mercer smiles when asked to recount the duo’s bids to play NCAA Division I tennis.
“With Derya, it was difficult from the standpoint of her academic status because in Germany, they take 13 years of school, five years of high school,” Mercer said. “And it’s different from the standpoint of how the NCAA calculates their GPAs (grade point averages), compared to how they calculate them here in the United States.
“When she sent all her original SAT scores and transcripts, we thought her GPA was 3.0. We thought everything was good, even though she had an SAT score that was not high because English isn’t her first language. We thought with the 3.0 combined with her score.
“Derya graduated at the end of June as they do in Germany, and it’s late, and when she got her material sent to NCAA it was early July. They didn’t evaluate them until the beginning of August, and then they came back and had different GPA -- 2.4. We asked why they came up with this?”
Mercer said the issue was that for student-athletes coming from Germany, the NCAA counts only the prospect’s core courses for his or her final two years (grades 12 and 13) and not the first three years of high school. With U.S. students, the NCAA counts all core courses in grades 9-12.
“So,” Mercer said, “she had to go back and sit out the fall and retake SATs. As a result, she wasn’t allowed to compete in any club tennis or organized tournaments. She can play starting this weekend for us – which means she’s going to be a little rusty.”
In the UVa Winter Invite, Marshall will be a five-team “mock dual” event that also includes Virginia, Tennessee, Utah and VCU – all ranked in the ITA top 58. It will also be the debut for Pomyatinskaya, whose arrival of the Herd’s “United Nations” roster was even trickier than Turhan’s.
“Normally when an athlete gets admitted to school, we send them all of the information they need, the paperwork, so they can go to a U.S. Embassy and get their student visa and they can come here,” Mercer said. “Anna has been training in Florida at IMG for the last year and a half. So, she was in the states, and while she was at IMG, after she got admitted and everything, unknowingly, her parents applied for a Green Card lottery and hired a lawyer.
“And unfortunately, when you do that, it kind of sends up red flags that you might want to stay (in the U.S.) permanently. So, if you go to a U.S. Embassy with your school paperwork and it pops up that you applied for this card, odds are that they won’t give you a student visa.
“So, her problem was that she was here in the states, with all of her stuff and her mom, and Anna was living at the academy, and her lawyer advised her not to leave the country because if that happened – where you can’t have your student visa – they also would not give her a visa to get back into the country to train at the academy.
“She would have been stuck outside the country.”
Mercer said it already was June when the above occurred, but he still held out hope the second Herd tennis player from Sochi – MU Athletics Hall of Famer Anna Mitina is from that Russian resort city on the Black Sea – could be enrolled last semester.
“So, then it became a race as to whether the government would be able to process the Green Card lottery application prior to school starting here, which they did not,” Mercer said. “She apparently has what is called a SEVIS number (Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, a nationwide, web-based system that the U.S. government uses to maintain current information on non-immigrant students).
“I will say this: Michael Schmelzle, our director of international students and scholars here at Marshall, is wonderful. He worked really hard through all of this to help Anna get here, on our behalf and her behalf. He worked with her lawyer, did great communicating with them to get her here.”
Mercer said his assistant coach, Kellie Schmitt, gets all of the credit for recruiting Turhan. Schmitt met Turhan’s German club team coach while she was working in Phoenix prior to moving to the Herd coaching job.
“Kellie emailed him, told him we had a spot open, asked if he had anyone he would suggest and Derya was no. 2 on her club team,” Mercer said. “It also helped that her brother (Tolga Turhan) was at a school in Florida (Webber International, near Winter Haven), and he worked in admissions there. He was a big help in the process.”
So, Mercer’s roster includes players from Pennsylvania (Karli Timko, the lone senior), Ohio, Canada, Norway, Germany (2) and Russia. Mercer has signed Maddie Silver of Grand Rapids, Mich., and Marija Bogicevic of Belgrade, Serbia, for 2014-15, and wants one more to add to the class.
As for this season, after the trip to UVa – where Mercer’s daughter, Cassie, has signed to play starting next season – Marshall opens its home schedule with matches at the Huntington Tennis Club in Barboursville against Morehead State on Jan. 25 and Radford the following day.
Marshall will alternate among singles and doubles competition against Virginia, Utah and Tennessee in this holiday weekend’s play.
“Basically, what we’re doing is getting really good competition,” Mercer said. “There are no team results, but individual results count toward NCAA Tournament qualifying, national rankings, regional rankings.”
Besides the first-event competition against quality teams, the Herd plays ITA-ranked foes in dual matches with Virginia Tech, Kentucky, Penn State, Indiana, Utah, VCU and Louisville. The C-USA teams in the early ITA poll are Rice (No. 23), Tulsa (28), Tulane (53) and North Texas (60).
“We don’t really have a top six yet (for singles), or doubles teams, either, because we don’t know where Anna and Derya fit in yet,” Mercer said. “This is crazy, because I’ve never really been in this situation where we have two players who should probably be solid, contributing players for us.
“Basically, we’re going to have to start over, come up with a singles lineup based on four days (of practice). Same with doubles, and we’ll have doubles teams that never played together.
As far as the season goes, it’ll probably be a work in progress. The first two or three weeks we need to get a lot accomplished.”
If Mercer is unsure about his team as it starts the season, he knows what he and Schmitt will need to progress.
“We’re going to have to have a lot of patience,” the Herd coach said, smiling. “Like I said, this is a work in progress, with four freshmen, two who haven’t been here. We have a lot of great opportunities to really work on our games and keep getting better.
I do think we have an awesome foundation for our team. It’s just about how fast it’s going to come to fruition, I guess.
“Is it going to be a month? Is it going to be three months? Is it going to be next year, when those four are sophomores and we have three more freshmen? They’re quality, talented players and we should be fine … but it’s all about getting experience.”