Across the NCAA, seniors were left asking “What if?” in March, after the coronavirus pandemic canceled the remaining winter and spring sporting events. Here are the stories that show the sudden, complicated, controversial and emotional endings athletes have been coming to grips with over the past few weeks.
On the morning after the NCAA announced it would allow seniors playing spring sports to return for an additional year following the cancellation of the remainder of the season due to the coronavirus pandemic, Estela Perez-Somarriba woke up in her apartment in Coral Gables, Florida, and knew what she wanted to do. She was going to return home to Spain, self-isolate with her family and prepare for the start of her professional tennis career.
But by that afternoon, after a few hours to let the weight of her decision sink in, Perez-Somarriba had changed her mind. As the defending NCAA singles champion, she thought she had unfinished business to take care of. She loved her time at Miami and wasn’t quite ready to say goodbye to the team or the school.
She was going to stay. Perez-Somarriba became the school’s first athlete to announce her decision to return with a letter on the athletic department website. She hasn’t second-guessed the decision since.
“It was a challenging decision, but I’m really attached to UM, and finishing my college career the way I always dreamt of is important to me,” she said. “There’s still so much I want to give to this program. I think only student-athletes could relate to this, but when you spend so much time with your coaches and your teammates and representing the university, it means so much and is just so special.
“I was also concerned about all of the uncertainty [at the professional level] right now, and there are so many questions about tournaments, traveling, sponsorships and my own family being quarantined in Madrid. I realized it was going to take quite a while to go back to normal. So I thought, I’ll use this time to get better, to keep practicing and keep improving. I’m pretty sure I made the right decision and am excited about next year.”
Now the 21-year-old will have one more year to expand upon her prolific collegiate career, which has already cemented her in Hurricanes lore. Perez-Somarriba became the second Miami player to win an NCAA title last spring (Audra Cohen in 2007 was the other), and with a 141-23 record in singles play, she has the most wins in school history (a record she broke in January). She’s a two-time ACC Player of the Year, a four-time All-American and the 2019 recipient of the prestigious Honda Award.
While she says she tries not to get too wrapped up in accolades, she does hope to repeat as NCAA champion next season and admits that she feels some motivation when she knows a record is on the line.
Head coach Paige Yaroshuk-Tews knew Perez-Somarriba was a gifted tennis player when she first arrived on campus as a freshman, but the coach admittedly didn’t think Perez-Somarriba was capable of being the best in the country. Yaroshuk-Tews had some concerns about Perez-Somarriba’s fitness but was immediately impressed by her work ethic and willingness to improve.
“I remember when she first came in, we had the whole team line up at the Watsco Center to run sprints,” Yaroshuk-Tews said. “And she made it back to the line and didn’t look very good. She was gassed, and her face was so pale, I was just about to tell our strength coach to let her sit the next one out. But then he blew the whistle, and she just took off. She went from looking like she was about to pass out to sprinting past everyone. We still joke about it, but that’s [the] thing with her. Once the whistle blows, she’s ready to go, no matter what.”
That drive and never-quit attitude have been the hallmarks of Perez-Somarriba’s time at Miami, and she has tried to soak up everything she can from the school. She is lauded by the coaching staff for her tireless efforts, on and off the court, and for doing whatever she can to improve her game. With Perez-Somarriba one of two seniors on a team otherwise entirely made up of freshmen, Yaroshuk-Tews asked her to step up as a leader. In typical fashion, she more than responded to the request.
“For the past three years, she’s understandably been focused on herself, but she was able to step out of that box and develop herself as a leader and become one of the better leaders that I’ve ever coached,” Yaroshuk-Tews said. “The girls really respect her and listen to her, and her personality started to rub off on them in an amazing way. It will be fun to see her get another year with them.”
Like most schools across the country, Miami closed its campus, including athletic facilities, and switched completely to online distance learning in March. Perez-Somarriba stayed at her apartment off campus, where she has been the past two months. She completed her bachelor’s degree in economics (with a 3.928 grade point average) and will graduate at the school’s delayed ceremony in December. She has been staying in shape with frequent runs and by using a stationary bike and some dumbbells she bought for her apartment.
She has been reading, cooking, Facetiming with her family in Madrid, finding new plants for her apartment and indulging her curious nature by researching anything she finds interesting online. A self-professed homebody, she hasn’t minded the downtime or being on her own. Yaroshuk-Tews says it’s Perez-Somarriba’s maturity and focus that have allowed her to continue to thrive, despite the unprecedented circumstances.
“She is the only kid that is asking during the pandemic to get into the equipment room to get some kettlebells and is setting up a personal gym in the living room of her apartment,” Yaroshuk-Tews said. “She is not the most talented of all the kids I’ve coached in terms of athleticism, but her work ethic and her approach to her practices is honestly like nothing I’ve ever seen in my life. I don’t think I’ll see anything like it again, either. You typically don’t see players that are as successful as she is but that are as humble and grateful for every single thing that’s given to them. When you mix that with her level of work ethic, the results are exceptional.”
Although the tennis courts on campus remain closed, a public court nearby has opened up as Florida eases its restrictions, and Perez-Somarriba and two of her teammates have been using it several mornings a week. The team has stayed in contact with frequent Zoom meetings, and Yaroshuk-Tews knows she can count on Perez-Somarriba to keep everyone’s spirits high with her positive attitude (and is appreciative that there is guaranteed to be at least one student-athlete on the call who didn’t just roll out of bed.)
Although so much remains in flux, Perez-Somarriba is determined to carry on as usual and is viewing her fifth year as the perfect opportunity for transition. She will look to defend her NCAA title (and break a few ACC records on the way) and complete a master’s degree in sports administration, but she also hopes to play in some professional events in the summer and fall, if and when the season resumes, to bolster her ranking and give her much-needed match experience against a higher level of competition.
As most of the players on the WTA tour skipped the collegiate level to turn professional as teenagers, Perez-Somarriba knows her résumé will be slightly different than those of many of her peers, but she has watched other college-stars-turned-pros, such as Danielle Collins, Nicole Gibbs and Kristie Ahn, succeed in recent years, and they have provided her a blueprint of what’s next. Still, she has modest goals to begin her career.
“I would like to make it to the top 100,” Perez-Somarriba said. “I just want to work hard every single day and just know that I gave it a shot, and I tried my best, and I did it the right way. If it works, great. If not, it doesn’t work. I just want to know I did everything the best I could to make my dreams come true.”
Perez-Somarriba got a taste of that dream when she played teenage phenomenon Coco Gauff at a sold-out homecoming exhibition match in February in Delray Beach, Florida. Gauff, then 15, was weeks removed from her fourth-round run at the Australian Open, in which she knocked off defending champion Naomi Osaka, and Perez-Somarriba was thrilled about the opportunity to play her.
Perez-Somarriba was coming off a win with her team at Georgia Tech, and her teammates and many of her friends were in the crowd to cheer her on against Gauff. She says she wasn’t intimidated by the moment and was excited to have the chance to gauge her skills against someone such as Gauff. Perez-Somarriba lost 6-3, 6-3 in 75 minutes, but she was pleased with her performance, and it fueled her belief that she could play at the next level.
“This is going to sound crazy, but I learned from that match that I could play against anybody,” she said. “Coco is such a great player, and she’s so young, and she has so much potential, but the fact that I was playing against her and kept it pretty tight, and I never felt as if I didn’t belong there. I actually felt comfortable and relaxed in that scenario and environment, and that has motivated me a lot. It gave me a lot of confidence, as well as exposing some of my weaknesses, so I left knowing some things to work on, and I’m still trying to improve [in those areas].”
For Yaroshuk-Tews, who watched proudly, the match was an incredible reminder of how much Perez-Somarriba has improved in her four years at the school.
“I just sat in the stands and took it all in. I just kept thinking, ‘Here’s a kid that came to the University of Miami, and I thought she, at best, would maybe be a No. 3 player for us, and now is out there playing Coco Gauff in front of a sellout crowd.’ The environment was unbelievable, and Stela more than held her own. It was just amazing to see how far she’s come.”