As the only American player on the tennis team, Natalia Munoz has become something of a tour guide for her teammates. She’s helped her teammates find books at the bookstore, navigate their classes and gives them tips on good places to eat and study.
“I asked [Emma Bardet], ‘can you tell me your I.D. number?,’” Munoz said laughing. “She was literally like ‘un deux trois.’”
In the last 10 years, the Long Beach State women’s tennis team has only filled five roster spots with American born players. This year, the team features eight players, all from different countries aiming for one goal — to win the Big West tournament, which begins Friday.
Long Beach (14-5, 6-2 Big West) has seen 11 Big West titles and 11 NCAA tournament appearances in Jenny Hilt-Costello’s 21 years as head coach of the women’s tennis team.
Munoz said it’s an honor to be one of only five Americans to make the cut in the last 10 years. Even with Long Beach Poly and Woodrow Wilson, two local high schools with impressive programs, Hilt-Costello is highly selective when choosing who makes the team.
“Occasionally a local school will reach out, but to be honest none of those players would be able to make our lineup,” Hilt-Costello said.
For top tennis players coming out of American high schools, Hilt-Costello believes that they have an idea of where they want to go early on and that usually isn’t LBSU.
“At the end of the day, I’m just looking at whatever is best available for our program,” Hilt-Costello said.
Long Beach’s global search for players is not pretty. The coaching staff doesn’t travel overseas and scout players on-location, while enjoying the weather of foreign lands. In reality, Hilt-Costello and coaching assistant Ashleigh Antal sit in a room watching footage of tournaments, picking out candidates to add on their list of possible recruits.
Even with the strenuous process, convincing prospects to join LBSU’s program is not one of the more difficult tasks. The school itself offers players the opportunity to play in a successful Division l program whose academics are almost as enticing as the weather. All of these elements combined make Long Beach look better than the average mid-major program, with half of its prospect pool coming from players who have reached out to the team as opposed to being traditionally recruited. This form of recruiting has led to the signing of many notable prospects. Two of the team’s best players, sophomore Lalita Devarakonda and junior Natalia Munoz, were brought in through this process and have been key to the team’s success this season.
“This was one of the first colleges I contacted and it was so overwhelming,” Devarakonda said. “When I confirmed with Jenny [Hilt-Costello] that I was coming here, she sent me the email: ‘Welcome To The Beach.’ I swear I didn’t sleep for two days.”
A big part of the team’s success has been Costello’s intensive international recruiting process which includes months of phone calls, video chat sessions and analyzing game footage.
“We’re scouting year round…we’re looking for the best available players and students who want to be here at Long Beach State,” Hilt-Costello said.
College tennis consists of 300 Division I schools, but there isn’t enough talent in the nation to fill most of those spots, according to Hilt-Costello. This puts mid-major programs, or less popular Division I schools, in a position that requires a lot of scouting. It’s common practice among the Big West Conference, as all nine teams consist mostly of international players.
“For us, it’s the best option for us and a necessary option,” Hilt-Costello said.
Long Beach’s scouting department consists of only Hilt-Costello and Antal, who spend three to four hours a week watching footage of possible recruits. Once the duo finds a player they feel fits the program, a four to five month transition period begins.
Hilt-Costello uses a database of recruiting services that helps her narrow down possible recruits, making the process a bit easier. Gone are the days of flipping through a rolodex to reach out to international athletes.
“We make the offer and if they accept then we work on the eligibility center, getting all the transcripts, working on admissions and getting all the paperwork together,” Hilt-Costello said.
Similar to the coaches, recruits base their decisions on Skype calls and texts with people who they are interested in working with. Despite having these interactions online, the conversations are productive enough that a player like Devarakonda was convinced to leave her home in Hyderabad, India for a place that she’d only seen through a screen.
Despite Devarakonda’s individual success in India, she was not even sure she wanted to attend a university, let alone one that was over 8,000 miles away. Long Beach had a lot to offer her, so much, that she was nervous when she first sent her workout tape in. Devarakonda had no idea what Hilt-Costello expected.
Alternately, freshman Zara Lennon knew exactly what would be in her video and the different types of shots she would execute.
“[Coach] didn’t want to see just the good parts…I didn’t really even update [or redo] anything that was in my video,” Lennon said.
The confidence Lennon showed in the recruiting process was warranted, with the Mauritian having known the game of tennis virtually her entire life. She was born into a family of tennis players and began playing at 4 years old. Starting at an early age gave her plenty of time to work on her game and helped her build confidence in her first tournament at the age of 7. Her dedication to the sport only grew from there as she continued to craft her game and play in competitions as much as she could.
Her growing game and interest left a major predicament for a 15-year-old Lennon since she lived in Mauritius, an island nation surrounded by the salty waters of the Indian Ocean whose most well-known neighbor is Madagascar. Her home country’s lack of competition led her to move to America, where she competed in tournaments and found the exposure she desired. Two years later, she decided to move back to Mauritius to prepare for her next move.
It was at this point that she made contact with Hilt-Costello and LBSU, having been pitched on the same ideas that Devarakonda found so life changing.
“The first thing I wanted was the sun, and that’s why I came here,” Lennon said. “I didn’t want to go to a place that was snowing or very cold.”
Mauritius is known for its uncomfortably warm weather and humidity, aspects that Lennon is happy to get away from. Wiktoria Rutkowska was also happy with the weather change coming from the cold winters of Puszczykowo, Poland.
“I wanted to come to California, so I just started looking for schools [here].” Rutkowska said. “I didn’t have many options because I really liked Long Beach.”
When Rutkowska was going through the scouting process, Hilt-Costello had serious interest in bringing her to Long Beach. The fit benefitted both sides, with Rutkowska sitting at the top of a competitive roster that was willing to work with her and improve her game.
Adaptation to a new city, let alone a new country has been a process for each international athlete. Santa Clarita native Natalia Munoz has acted as sort of a tour guide for international recruits the last three years, teaching them about American culture and helping them navigate through everyday activities.
“They talk a lot of shit about America,” Munoz said laughing. “There’s a lot of culture shock, they love it here and whenever they have a question they always ask me.” They think it’s cool that I know so much.”
Munoz has taken the role of helping the international athletes become comfortable in their situation. But while Munoz helps her teammates off the court, her teammates help her improve her game, teaching her different play styles from each country.
“In Europe, they play on a clay surface so Dominique [Meyer] is used to sliding on clay, which makes the game a lot more creative because the ball moves slower,” Munoz said. “Because I’m not as fast as my other teammates, I’ve picked up from skills from them to help me control the game.”
Staying competitive is important to the entire team. It’s the culture that has been set by Hilt-Costello since day one, which shines through in her scouting.
Looking for people she values as high-character personalities, whose raw talents can be molded into winning tennis that benefits all parties involved.
It’s this philosophy that has led them to a winning record, and a chance to seriously compete in the Big West and NCAA tournament.