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Denise Maloof | | May 15, 2014

Maloof: One-of-a-kind coach

ATLAMONTE SPRINGS, Fla. -- It’s a small group of head coaches in this week’s 2014 NCAA Division II Women’s Tennis Championships that have the phrase “acting” attached to their title.

None likely have the addendum of “graduate student,” either.

So what did Saint Leo's acting head coach Sarah Summerfield do to celebrate her No. 6-ranked team’s 5-2 quarterfinal victory against No. 12 California (Pa.) on Thursday?

“I have homework due [Thursday night], so I have to remember that,” Summerfield said. “I haven’t looked at the chapter yet or done anything. Right now I’m taking a human resources class, so it’s good -- Week Two. We’ll see what happens.”

Human Resources? Perfect!

In her first year of a masters of business administration degree, Summerfield has lived real-life human resources since Oct. 26, 2013. That’s when she and fellow graduate assistant Martin Parkes assumed their “acting” titles for St. Leo’s women’s and men’s tennis teams, respectively, following former dual head coach James Bryce’s departure to Mississippi State.

Instead of stalling under the grad assistants’ care, both Lions’ tennis teams roared this season -- the men advancing to the Sunshine State Conference semifinals before their season ended, and the women to Friday’s NCAA semifinal match against No. 2 Armstrong Atlantic.

“In fairness to Martin, he got the men to No. 4 during the season,” St. Leo Athletic Director Francis X. Reidy said.  “And Sarah has guided the women along -- they’re a good team -- and has kept them on track. It’s been a good run. And I think the girls began to believe in her, too. It’s an older group of girls. So I think once they figured each other out, things began to come together.”

The women’s journey has been more notable. No Saint Leo women’s team had advanced to the national level of an NCAA tournament until the present Lions. Wednesday’s Round of 16 upset of No. 3 BYU-Hawaii, a six-hour grind interrupted by thunderstorms at suburban Orlando’s Sanlando Park, made more history.

As did Thursday’s quarterfinal triumph against Cal (Pa.) a more methodical 5-2 victory greased by the Lions winning two of the three doubles matches. Victories at No. 2, No. 4 and No. 5 singles propelled them into the semifinals.

“Everyone has different mentality and competes differently,” Summerfield said of the art of coaching. “We also knew like (Wednesday), that we were not the favorite team. But we came in (Wednesday) and we battled, and today we expected California University-Penn to do the same thing, and we did not let up, play anything less that our best level of tennis.”

Then-No.4-ranked St. Leo hosted then-No. 1-ranked Armstrong-Atlantic on Feb. 22. The Pirates won 9-0, sweeping all three doubles and all six singles matches.

“We’ve played them already, so we’re prepared and know what we have to do to win,” Summerfield said. “It won’t be easy. It hasn’t been easy up to this point. We just have to keep doing our best.”

That’s been her mantra through the surprise of becoming a head coach so early in her career, through a mid-season injury epidemic, to the blending of talented players from different countries into a group force.

“Trying to get everyone on the same page is definitely the most challenging,” Summerfield said. “And you just kind of learn different ways to deal with different situations every single day. Because, trust me, something comes up every single day.” 

“She’s very good on the court,” Reidy said. “The original plan was come get your masters, get some experience at a good program and parlay that into a position. I think she’s probably accelerated that process at little bit, so that’s good for her.”

The two acting head tennis coaches at St. Leo also have relied on each other.

“We definitely have supported each other a lot over the course of the whole season,” Summerfield said of Parkes. “Actually, it’s been very good for both of us because we can kind of bounce ideas off each other but still not have so much responsibility.

“It’s been a really great learning experience even though it’s been a whole lot of responsibility thrown on me. I can’t complain about that. This is what I want to do.”

This week, Parkes is Summerfield’s assistant coach, dispatched to whatever group of Lady Lions needs him most during these NCAA tournament matches.

“I’m been putting him to work,” Summerfield said. “He’s been very helpful. I’m learning how to be the boss, so it’s been good.”

Despite their good work, neither will inherit their “acting” positions on a full-time basis.

Per Reidy, a late-summer search to replace Bryce last year didn’t yield satisfactory results. Thus the decision to entrust Parkes and Summerfield with “acting” titles. With the search now reopened, both grad assistants can return to their original roles next season.

“The position is to oversee the men and women,” Reidy said. “If we were splitting the positions, we might have a different view of this. But it has to be someone who can manage two programs, thus the experience, and that’s the challenge.”

Now, he believes even more in Saint Leo’s unanticipated tennis magic, especially after Wednesday’s upset of BYU-Hawaii and Thursday’s victory versus Cal (Pa.).

“I didn’t stay last night,” Reidy said of his pre-upset decision to return home Wednesday. “I commuted. I drove over yesterday morning -- about two hours in traffic -- and I didn’t stay over. But I did pack. I do have a hotel for (Thursday). After (Wednesday) I was very confident. I have a reservation.”