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Thursday, May 13, 2010 - 1:08pm

AASU Tennis at NCAA II Nationals

Updated: 4 years ago.

Many young people growing up in other parts of the world dream of coming to the United States.

More than a few are landing in Georgia based on the athletic reputation of a little-known tennis powerhouse. 

Simon Earnshaw was a graduate student playing tennis at Georgia College in Milledgeville when the tennis coach at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah saw him at a tournament.

The two knew each other from years of competing.

The Armstrong coach offered Earnshaw, from Yorkshire, England, a job.

"If I go down there and I like what they got to offer, it's the first step on the ladder," Earnshaw thought.  "I think, often times, getting that first step on the ladder is the hardest part in your career, right?"

Earnshaw now is helping his own cast of players get their first step on the ladder as head choach of Armstrong's men's and women's tennis.

Last week, he watched in Savannah as AASU trounced opponents to earn a spot in the Division II national championship.

They won their division nationals back-to-back the past two-years and Earnshaw is rather calm about going for a third consecutive win.

"So few teams and even coaches in any sport, whether you're Division I, II or III, win national championships, that if I think logically, people put pressure on you, but it's a little unrealistic pressure," Earnshaw says.  "I think we have a big target on our back."

Like Earnshaw himself, most of Armstrong's players came to the US to play tennis.

In fact, the teams are overwhelmingly international: Slovakian, French, Irish, German and Ukrainian, too name a few.

"Gabriella is from a town with an unpronounceable name," Earnshaw says, of Gabriella Kovacs, from Hungary.

"I lived near the capital," she explains.

Kovacs says, she started playing tennis at a young age.

At some point, she realized tennis could be a ticket to the US.

An insane amount of work followed.

Then top-ranked AASU recruited her.

Rafael Array from Canary Islands, Spain has a similar story.

"I'm a very competitive person and I don't like to lose," Array says.  "So, every time I go to the court, I try to win every time.  I give it all.  So, that's why I play tennis at the same time I'm doing my education."

Array, on scholarship, says, the U-S gave him a chance to play tennis and study economics.

He hopes to go pro, like a few teammates.

Mikk Irdoja, from Tallinn, Estonia, says, he's trying not to think about post-grad or a possible three-peat.

The game, he says, is mental.

"Obviously, it's harder, anyway, because all the other teams, they want to beat the No.1 team," Irdoja says.  "But, we know we are the best team and we work hardest, so if we do our stuff, we're going to win."

For Earnshaw, attracting international players is just a coincidence of being a top-ranked Division II team.

The Brit says, the best US players generally try to get into better-known Division I schools.

"It's more difficult for us to attract the level of US born player," Earnshaw says.  "Whereas, the international players don't really have that kind of brand snobbery."

Both men's and women's teams went into this weekend's Division II national championship having lost just two matches in three years.

The competition continues through Saturday in Orlando, Florida.

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