Far from home feels like home

Slippery Rock tennis seniors share their experiences as international students playing a collegiate sport

Published by Aidan Treu, Date: April 25, 2024
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The Rock tennis has built a legacy of success and a family culture through their leadership, consistent play and coaching.

Seniors Gabriela del Val del Toro and Nuria Martin Lopez are the latest duo of leaders continuing the tradition.

“First, I had Olivia Warner who was a really good captain, then I had Lois Page who was one of the best players in the program. I had really good leadership and then I had to take the leadership role and definitely I got so many things from them,” Martin Lopez said.

The White and Green’s tennis squad hails almost entirely from different countries. Martin Lopez and del Val del Toro are both originally from Spain. Sophomore Amaia Balaguer Brau is also from Spain. Tina Slovak and Georgie Lancaster both came from England, Dari Sakhanova is a former resident of Russia and Nicole Kempton is the lone native of America, coming from South Park, Pa.

It is a consensus opinion that head coach Matt Meredith has played a significant role in the players transitions to the U.S. Not only has he developed a talented roster, but his recruiting and coaching strategies have brought the team close despite originally arriving from far different locations.

“When he recruits, he makes sure that he not only recruits good players but he recruits players that are going to fit the team. We’re a small team so you want to make sure you have people that get along with each other,” del Val del Toro said.

Slippery Rock is the home of many students whose childhood home is close by. For international students, trips back home are much more difficult to arrange. Meredith has gone above and beyond in cultivating a tightly knit group, fully understanding his players may not have consistent opportunities to see their families.

“I would say he takes a lot of care of us. He shows up in our important days. He’s kind of like our family here so when we have presentations when we have things, he always shows up for it,” del Val del Toro said. “He cooks sometimes in his house on special days like Thanksgiving and all of those special occasions. He welcomes us to his family and makes everything just so much easier.”

The combination of personability and competition is not always available to international students. They may have to choose one or the other at different schools. That is not the case at The Rock.

“I transferred here because when I talked to coach Meredith he made it feel like it was the right fit for me. They have a really competitive program,” del Val del Toro said.

She transferred from Coker University where went 7-2 in singles competition before the season was cut off due to COVID-19.

“We both transferred here. We came from Spain. We got an academic and athletic scholarship to play here,” del Val del Toro said.

Martin Lopez started her collegiate tennis career with Division I Nicholls State University. She started considering a transfer early after her career started and some kind words from a friend about coach Meredith helped aid her decision.

“I also transferred mostly because of Coach,” Martin Lope said. “[Adriana Gonzales Sanchez] told me she really likes our coach and the program.”

Gonzales Sanchez played in the White and Green from 2020 to 2023, earning the 2021 PSAC-West Athlete of the Year award and 95 wins in the process.

Meredith’s leadership style has trickled down to the seniors year after year. That holds true with this season.

“One thing we do as captains this year is we make sure from the beginning that people coming in know what our culture is and what our expectations are and I think this year’s new players has gotten that from the beginning and that has helped us be all on the same page,” Martin Lopez said.

The relationship between upperclassmen and newcomers need cooperation on both sides, and that has been achieved as well.

“I think the freshman and sophomores really look up to the seniors. Not only just when we talk to them and tell them our experiences and stuff, but also from seeing us on court and seeing the fighting spirit and that passion,” del Val del Toro said. “I think the freshman really look up to us in how we care about us winning as a team. It’s something that you develop with the years.”

The team leaders make sure incoming players are comfortable, but they also make sure to set the standard quickly.

“We have a really competitive team so, not saying there’s pressure, but at the same time we have really high expectations,” Martin Lopez said. “The first thing I always say is ‘lets make it to nationals.’ Like we really care about having a great season because we’ve been doing that for so many years.”

The culture development does not only take place on the court though. The team takes yearly trips down south for practice and team bonding during spring break.

“We always go to Orlando with the team and we play a lot of matches and we all live in the same house for 10 days. It really helps us and its always really fun. We do a lot of things apart from playing tennis there,” Martin Lopez said.

The seniors’ leadership skills have come from several experiences they have had both while here and during the transition to America.

“The team culture, we don’t have that in Spain. Tennis is an individual sport so that was like a really big change,” Martin Lopez said. “Playing for a team and knowing that you go every day to practice with a team, you just don’t care about yourself you have to care about the whole team. And even travelling with the team, yeah that was a big change.”

The culture shock upon arrival to small town Slippery Rock did not make the change quick for del Val del Toro. The bright side is the number of international students on the team at SRU has helped build a squad as diverse as any.

“I’m from Barcelona which is a really big city in Europe so the transition was kind of different. We don’t have a car here either so we walk everywhere. Definitely a cultural shock at the beginning,” del Val del Toro said.  “Everyone was really helpful, especially the team. We’re all from different countries so we put together all the international perspectives.”

The dynamic has created no shortage of exciting moments for the senior duo. The Barcelona native cited one of her favorites being “beating Mercyhurst in the quarters last year.”

“We were all really working in that match. We made it to the finals later. It was one of the most special moments for the team. It’s all the work put together. It all came together,” del Val del Toro said.

Martin Lopez shared the memory of her first time playing doubles with del Val del Toro. It was a learning experience. One of the things they learned is they are an efficient and competitive team.

“We both made the PSAC finals in doubles,” Martin Lopez said. “We were playing doubles together and we made the finals. It was the first time playing doubles together and Coach wasn’t really sure about us being a good doubles pair, but we proved that we were good. It was just special to get to the finals.”

Another bright memory was not of the two playing tennis, but rather watching it.

“When we went to New York City to watch the U.S. Open, it was really fun to watch tennis in such an amazing atmosphere,” Martin Lopez said.

Their decision to come here was not solely based on athletics. Del Val del Toro is finishing her second major at SRU and Martin Lopez is working on a Mathematics major. The school fit all their needs.

“We always make it to the PSAC tournament and to regionals and then the psychology program is really good here too,” del Val del Toro said.

She is currently finishing her Strategic Communication degree and finished her Psychology degree last year. The three-time All-PSAC West honoree was able to experience graduation with her family.

“Definitely graduation is a big thing. Especially when my family was able to come here and meet my life here which was really special because you end up building a new life here in another country,” del Val del Toro said.

One part of America’s culture that has made a mark on del Val del Toro is Queen’s classic “We will rock you.”

“We always have to play ‘We will rock you’ right before we arrive. That is a superstition of Coach and me. We have to do it,” del Val del Toro said.

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