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Family is the key for new Georgetown College head men's and women's tennis coach Jessica Cunningham. Not surprising though, as it was a love match on the courts during her days as a Tiger.
"We had several candidates that we liked, but we were looking for a lot of things in hiring this tennis coach," GC director of athletics Brian Evans said. "Jessica is someone who understands the traditions and expectations of Georgetown College. She and her husband will offer our student-athletes the consistency that has been lacking in the past year."
Cunningham, a 2002 graduate, met her husband Michael at Georgetown. Both played tennis for then coach John Herring and his successor Kevin Calhoun. After the latter departed GC a year ago, the Tigers went through two coaches, but Cunningham is hopeful at inserting stability right away.
"My first thought in taking this job was it would immediately infuse some stability," Cunningham said. "We bring history back to the program. We are still connected to a lot of the people we played with and have strong ties in the central Kentucky area in tennis.
"These young men and women have been through a lot this past year and my focus is to build connections with them and heal the hurts from a difficult experience."
The women's team graduated one player, while the men lost no one off a team that defeated Lindsey Wilson for the first time since Cunningham's husband wore the Orange & Black. Both squads will be young again this next year with just one male senior.
"It is both good and not so good that these players are so young," Cunningham said. "It shows great mental toughness and dedication to the sport and Georgetown to see them persevere through difficult times in this past year. But, for many it was also their first experience as college players. In this respect, we hope to change the perception of what it means to play college tennis to a more positive experience for the teams."
Unlike many sports, tennis is often seen as an individual sport. While it will always be, team does take a unique role at this level. Players who may not really know each other must come together for the greater good of the whole Tiger team.
"It goes back to that family aspect," Cunningham said. "If you care about one another you will want to do better for your teammates, not just the individual aspect for yourself.
"Part of that family, we hope, is to also reach out to Scott County. It has a great Quick Start program and we want to find a way to grow our Georgetown family with the surrounding community."
Cunningham likes to use the term we, as she knows her husband, who is the president of the USTA Lexington league, will be right there beside her in this coaching endeavor.
"We are both very excited because this is such a good fit for us," Cunningham said. "It's more of that family ideal that is my goal for this program going forward."
Cunningham has her Ph.D. in Educational Policy Studies and Evaluation and has taught as an Assistant Professor of Educational Research for two years. While she plans to continue to pursue her professional career as a faculty, her focus will be GC tennis.
"It is in the works for hopefully the next year to teach at Georgetown College, but tennis has always been a passion and where my heart is," Cunningham said. "Being able to come back to Georgetown - where I played and know the tradition - was an opportunity I couldn't pass up. I know the potential this program has, and I am ready to see if we can't get it where it should be, where it has been in the past."
Cunningham acknowledges that part of the coaching process is also teaching. She wants to make her athletes better on the court as well as off, "making them the best player, student and overall person."
She has not had much contact in her first few days as the official head coach with her team, but is hopeful in the coming days to make that critical connection with her players.
"I have been able to talk with one of the female players thus far and Monday night I'll be at the 5/3rd Bank Tennis Tournament banquet where I know several others will be working the event. Hopefully, in the course of the next week or so I will have contacted everyone," Cunningham said. "I know they have to be disheartened after this past year and it is important for me to focus my attention on them. They are my family now."