The South Carolina men's tennis team is emphasizing a strong culture and mindset as it works towards the goal of bringing a national title back to Columbia this season.
The Gamecocks ended their historic 2020-21 season ranked No.13 in the nation. It ended with a 17-10 record, a trip to the Sweet 16 and four players ranked in singles, including third-ranked Daniel Rodrigues who finished as the NCAA singles runner-up with a 31-8 record as a sophomore.
“For a team that hasn’t been there before to go and make Sweet 16 and see every other team do it and be right there with the top teams in the country — not just at Orlando but throughout the season," sophomore Connor Thomson said. "We really opened our eyes to just how good we can be."
The team is confident it can win a title this year with five players starting the season ranked in the ITA top 60, including Rodrigues and Thomson, who are ranked No. 3 and No.16 in singles and No. 4 in doubles. Junior Raphael Lambling, sophomore Toby Samuel and sophomore James Story were also ranked at No. 39, No. 49 and No. 56, respectively.
“Our guys, they’re not going to shy away from it. They want to win a title. Whether that's an SEC Championship or a National Title, that’s why they’re here, and I think there’s a belief factor that they can do it," head coach Josh Goffi said.
Expectations are high this season after the success the team saw last year, but according to Rodrigues, the players are focused on what the team can do this year.
"It's a mature team. We have the pressure on us because there's no excuses of 'we have young guys' or 'maybe we're going to do better next year.' There is no next year. There's this year, and it's on us," Rodrigues said.
With the South Carolina men's tennis program breaking through as one of the best tennis programs in the country, their approach to developing players is what ultimately sets them apart. That all starts with developing each player both on and off the court, according to Goffi.
“We use tennis as a vehicle to teach them how to be a good person, how to be successful, and there’s a lot of things in that. There’s a lot of things to that, but ultimately we start with each guy and then teach the game around that," Goffi said.
The Gamecocks are lucky to have what Thomson said he believes is one of the best cultures in college tennis.
"They've really developed me as a tennis player but also as a person off the court," Thomson said. "Maturing off the court is very important as well as maturing on the court. It goes hand in hand."
For Rodrigues, Goffi's leadership and coaching style has played a huge part in developing this winning culture at South Carolina.
“I really am so proud that I chose Carolina just because of Josh and then the team, the environment and how hard we work here," Rodrigues said. "Even James, who transferred here this year, he's feeling how hard we work and how different we are from other teams."
The team's closeness off the court has also played a part in how successful they've been able to be on the court, according to Thomson.
"That's what pushes us every single day. We're a family. We keep each other accountable. We trust each other," Thomson said.
Rodrigues describes their relationships as being very brotherly, especially since they all live together between two apartments. This is a result of an emphasis that Goffi said the players put on being "true friends" with each other instead of just friendly with each other as a team.
"We need to be true friends with each other. So our guys actually hold each other accountable very well because they actually care about each other," Goffi said.