Where the World Comes to Play

International student-athletes key to Brenau tennis’ sustained success

In 11 seasons at Brenau University, Andre Ferreira has led the Golden Tigers tennis program to 140 victories, eight National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics championship appearances and two conference titles with nine All-American honorees.

These achievements have propelled Ferreira through the echelons of the NAIA’s coaching elite. The native of Sao Paulo, Brazil, currently ranks fourth in career winning percentage (63.1%) and seventh in both all-time wins and active coaching victories.

“I’ve been fortunate to coach extraordinary groups of young women on the Brenau tennis team over the years,” says Ferreira, crediting his success to the “dedication, commitment and perseverance” of his players.

Like his Brenau tennis predecessors, Ferreira has also relied heavily on a bevy of international student-athletes and a global recruiting pipeline that began under coach and athletic director Bill Rogers in the 1990s. Brenau’s current tennis team, which recently opened its spring season ranked No. 6 in the country, includes four international players.

Ferreira says the ability to recruit internationally is crucial to remaining competitive in what is widely considered the most popular individual sport in the world. According to the International Tennis Federation, 87 million play the game worldwide.

Brenau tennis coach Andre Ferreira ranks fourth in career winning percentage in the NAIA. Ferreira, from Sao Paulo, Brazil, says the recruitment of international student-athletes is crucial in order to remain competitive in a global game. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

“Tennis is a very global sport,” Ferreira says. “When you mix that with a U.S. higher education system that so closely combines athletics and academics, then you have a recipe for targeting a broader group.”

Ferreira, who is married to former Brenau tennis player Lindsay Woon, WC ’07, of Malaysia, whom he met while playing tennis at Berry College, says for many international prospects, playing tennis in the U.S. is a pathway to bigger opportunities. For some, that means chasing their dreams to get to the pros, though for most it’s about the opportunity to get an education while playing the sport they love.

“Getting a college education and playing tennis at the same time was impossible in my home country of Belarus. Furthermore, beyond education and tennis, the U.S. offered immense life opportunities.”

Antonina Grib Lerch, WC ’03
Brenau trustee and former tennis player

That was especially true for Brenau University trustee Antonina Grib Lerch, WC ’03, who as a member of the Golden Tigers tennis teams from 2000-2002 won a still-unmatched three straight “Super Bowl” titles as the national champ in women’s collegiate singles play. The three-time All-American was also a member of Brenau’s 2002 national championship team.

Lerch, from Minsk, Belarus, was originally recruited by Clemson until an NCAA eligibility issue forced her to look to the then-looser NAIA. Rogers saw her play only once, but it was enough to offer her a scholarship to Brenau. For Lerch, coming to the U.S. was an “opportunity to get a great education, play tennis at a high level and improve my life.”

“Getting a college education and playing tennis at the same time was impossible in my home country of Belarus,” says Lerch, who majored in fashion merchandising at Brenau. “Furthermore, beyond education and tennis, the U.S. offered immense life opportunities.”

At Brenau, Lerch discovered a campus and community very different from her home in Belarus, which was still in deep economic crisis following the fall of the Soviet Union. “Minsk was large, polluted and difficult to navigate,” Lerch says. “I found Brenau vibrant and beautiful with fresh air and beautiful greenery. The campus and town were easy to get around, and the local economy was prospering.”

Lerch says she was also impressed by the warm and welcoming faculty and students at Brenau and “the family-like atmosphere was very different from anything I had experienced before.”

After graduating from Brenau in 2003, Lerch enrolled in the costume design and technology MFA program at the University of Georgia. She would eventually go on to a successful career as a Hollywood costumer on award-winning TV programs like Mad Men, Dollhouse, Dexter and True Blood and on films like Night at the Museum II (2009) and Star Trek (2009), though she has since retired to focus on family.

Excellence on the court and in the classroom

Like Lerch, Nelli Martirosyan, WC ’12, BU ’16, says she and her sister, Lilit — who played tennis at Sam Houston State University and later Columbia College in South Carolina — came to the U.S. seeking educational opportunities not available in their home country of Armenia.

“Tennis was our only chance to actually go to college,” says Martirosyan, a four-time NAIA scholar-athlete and current admissions graphic design specialist at Brenau. “My family found out about athletic scholarships when I was 10, so it was something we started working toward — to be able to play tennis and get an education in the U.S.”

Applying to colleges in Southern states because she “wanted to go somewhere warmer,” Martirosyan says she sent her recruiting video to Gordon Leslie, Brenau tennis coach and athletic director from 2005 to 2010, and “everything fell into place after that.”

“We started beating everyone, and suddenly teams didn’t want to play us because they didn’t want that ‘L’ on their record.”

Bill Rogers, former Brenau tennis coach

Martirosyan credits Leslie, who was born in Scotland and grew up in England, as a big part of her decision to come to Brenau. Leslie led the Golden Tigers to four national championship appearances, compiling a 71-46 record while consistently being ranked in the top 10. His 2008 team, which included Martirosyan, featured an all-international roster of seven players from six different countries.

“He was just really different from all the other coaches I talked to,” Martirosyan says. “Brenau also seemed like a really neat, connected community, and I enjoyed having more of a smaller community around me, especially as an international student.”

While Martirosyan is grateful for her time as an athlete at Brenau, she is equally proud of her and her teammates’ accomplishments in the classroom.

“Honestly, it was a lot of pressure, but at the same time, it was really cool knowing that I was a part of such a strong team in the NAIA division — not just athletically, but academically as well,” says Martirosyan, who earned both her BFA in graphic design in 2012 and MBA in project management in 2016 from Brenau. “We represented what student-athletes should be for a long time, and we still do.”

Young Women holding tennis racquets and standing with their older male coach
Nelli Martirosyan, WC ’12, BU ’16, bottom left, a native of Armenia and current graphic design specialist at Brenau, was a member of the all-international Golden Tigers tennis team in 2008. Also pictured, clockwise from top left: Assistant Coach Zora Gyoreova of Slovakia, Paula Ghilardotti of Argentina, Shkurte Ejupi of Kosovo, Liubov Orlova of Russia, Coach Gordon Leslie of Scotland, Diana Cardenas of Colombia, Jolene Wong of Singapore and Natalia Aranguren of Colombia. (Brenau University)

Building a powerhouse

Developing successful student-athletes, on and off the court, was a top priority for Rogers after arriving at Brenau in 1990. And that he did.

In 15 seasons, Rogers’ powerhouse teams amassed more than 300 victories and over 30 team, individual and doubles titles, including team national championships in 1999 and 2002. From 1990 to 2005, the Golden Tigers never had a losing record, finished outside the top 10 national rankings just twice and produced dozens of All-Americans and scholar-athletes.

An influx of international talent played a big part in that success. Growing up and playing tennis in Florida, Rogers says he was exposed to several international players and made a lot of contacts from all over the world that he remained in close touch with.

“When I got to Brenau, I began reaching out to them,” Rogers says, “and they were like, ‘Yeah, sure. We can help you out.’”

Rogers says expanding Brenau’s recruiting footprint internationally “absolutely upped our game,” creating more competition within the team and increasing skill levels. And while many schools did not want to schedule his early teams because “they thought we weren’t very good,” Rogers says that changed as Brenau continued to stack its rosters with top international talent.

“We started beating everyone, and suddenly teams didn’t want to play us because they didn’t want that ‘L’ on their record,” says Rogers, now a professor of exercise science at Georgia Gwinnett College, where he previously served as dean of student services and associate dean of students for wellness.

Today, competition on the court and in recruiting is tougher than ever. While Brenau continues to recruit internationally through its recruiting agencies, by word of mouth and via random contacts — such as cold calls or emails and videos sent by recruits — Ferreira says the current COVID-19 situation has presented many challenges.

“There were so many uncertainties this year: travel bans, quarantine rules, scheduling issues with embassy appointments to get student visas, etc.,” he says. “We are lucky enough, heading into fall 2021, that we don’t have any graduating seniors. We also had several local players, including twin sisters MaryWynn and Sally Brannon of Gainesville, join us. So, if no one leaves, we’re in good shape with our roster.”

Former Brenau tennis coach Bill Rogers, right, shares a moment with current coach Andre Ferreira, left, former player Alexandra Rossi Rashed of Switzerland and Brenau Vice President of Athletics Mike Lochstampfor during the 2015 Brenau Athletics Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Joining Rogers and Rashed in the hall of fame class were former players Leyla Ogen of England and Helene Macchi of Canada. (Brenau University)

Carrying the torch

Brenau’s four current international players include juniors Juana Zambrano of Peru and Evelin Gouveia of Brazil, and seniors Valentina Pabon of Colombia and Peeraya Charoensirisutthikul of Thailand.

For Zambrano and Gouveia, having a fellow South American as their coach and mentor played a big part in their decision to attend Brenau. They also share an appreciation for the kindness and support they have found in their Brenau community.

“Coach (Ferreira) is one of the kindest people I’ve ever known,” says Zambrano, who is majoring in marketing. “I had offers from other schools, but I just connected in some way with him. He’s also South American and understood my situation. I don’t come from a higher income, so he looked for ways for me to come here. He was all in, and I liked that about him.”

Gouveia, an interior design major and student international ambassador, says Ferreira gave her the courage to know that she could “overcome the language and culture barriers” of coming to Brenau.

“The mix of cultures, accents and the way we interact with each other is so interesting and the best part of being on the team,” she says. “We always joke about the way that we speak and how we sometimes mess up the English. It’s what makes our team special, and that chemistry is what keeps us going and helps us motivate each other.”

Pabon says, like so many other international student-athletes, she chose to play collegiate tennis in the U.S. because the integration of athletics and academics in higher education was not available in her home country of Colombia.

“Back home, I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to play tennis and study at the same time,” she says. “I would have to choose between them, and I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to be able to do both, but I couldn’t in Colombia because, unfortunately, the universities there don’t support sports too much.”

While Pabon thought Brenau would be like the “big universities and campuses I saw in movies,” the marketing operations management major says she was unexpectedly happy to discover a place where she feels like she truly belongs.

“I realized Brenau was what I needed,” she says. “I found that I loved the small classes, being able to participate and to be able to get to know my professors and my professors get to know me. I’m not just a student. They know who I am. I’m someone at Brenau. I matter.”

It’s a caring community that Charoensirisutthikul — a 2020 Brenau graduate in finance and accounting who is currently working on a second undergraduate degree in exercise science — calls her “backup family.”

“The people, the professors, everybody that works at Brenau — they’re always willing to help, and they always make me feel like I’m at home,” she says.

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