By Preston Byers
Youngstown State University women’s tennis coach Mickael Sopel is used to winning.
Since Sopel took over the women’s team in 2013, the Penguins have won five Horizon League team titles. However, last year yielded little glory.
The young team, hampered by injuries, finished the 2019 dual season with a 6-18 record, which was the worst of Sopel’s YSU career. The Penguins also came out on the losing end of nearly every close match, which wasn’t the case in previous seasons.
“It brings you back to Earth when you have been winning five times in a row,” Sopel said. “We have a strong league and, as you see, the most little details that make you win tournaments can — if you don’t take care of those details — lead to you not making it at all.”
YSU’s struggles weren’t due to a lack of talent, though, Sopel is quick to point out.
In one of its final matches of the season, YSU defeated the University of Illinois at Chicago, the eventual conference champions, in UIC’s only league loss of the year.
That win against UIC, in addition to a strong fall season, gives Sopel hope that his team will be able to climb back to the top of the league.
The team will look to their two captains, Imaan Hassim and Cassandra Moraleja, who also are the only two seniors.
The two are great leaders and serve as examples of successful student-athletes for their younger teammates, according to Sopel. In July 2019, Hassim and Moraleja were among the five YSU women’s tennis players named scholar-athletes by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association, an honor awarded to varsity letter winners who earn a GPA of at least 3.5.
Hassim and Moraleja, who are from South Africa and Australia, respectively, are also examples of the team’s diverse roster. All six players are from different countries, and none are from the United States. According to Sopel, that diversity only helps.
“I believe diversity is always a strength if you are able to take the best of it,” he said. “That’s what we have been able to do in this program. Diversity brings a lot of different perspectives. All the players come from different countries, different coaches, different approach, different views on a lot of things. When you bring that all together and you get the best out of everyone, we all learn from each other. We’ll get stronger every day from that interaction and building that together.”
Sopel, despite watching his team fall short of their goals last season, fully expects to win his sixth league title in April, when the Horizon League women’s tennis championship is played.
“That’s always what we are aiming for,” Sopel said. “That goal never changes. We have the talent; we have the team.”
The Penguins, who were projected to finish fourth in the Horizon League preseason poll, will begin their dual season on the road against Bowling Green State University on Jan. 24. They will then travel and play the University of Toledo the next day. Conference play begins March 21 against the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.