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Wednesday April 20, 2011Sunshine Success: Florida Tennis Thrives With In-State Talent

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Florida men’s tennis coach Andy Jackson hears it from his colleagues all the time.

A veteran college tennis coach known for his many international contacts in the game, Jackson could easily build the Gators’ roster each year with talented players from France or Italy or Germany or some other far away place.

Florida is one of the sport’s top programs, loaded with resources and located in a place known for plenty of sunshine. The Gators host this week’s SEC Tournament for the first time in 12 years, featuring a roster heavy with in-state players while the rest of the field is loaded with international players.

So why does Jackson continue to build teams that usually feature mostly homegrown players with a couple of international players mixed in?

“I know a lot of my fellow coaches think I’m going about it the hard way,’’ Jackson said. “But I came to Florida because I want to coach Florida guys first. And we’re doing that. Sometimes maybe it’s a little harder than if we just got four guys from France, four guys from Germany and two guys from Florida, but I’ve kind of done that before.’’

Jackson built up his international contacts during his time at Mississippi State, where he started out as the women’s coach and later took over the men’s program. The prep tennis scene is Mississippi is nothing like the lively one in Florida, so Jackson was forced to load the Bulldogs’ roster with players from overseas with a heavy emphasis on France.

He won consistently at Mississippi State, and when Florida looked to replace former coach Ian Duvenhage after the 2001-02 season, Jackson arrived in Gainesville with a new philosophy toward recruiting.

In Duvenhage’s final four seasons, the Gators’ roster often lacked a strong Florida presence, with 25 of 38 roster spots (65.8 percent) filled by players from somewhere other than the Sunshine State. Under Jackson, the program has consistently featured homegrown players, including six of eight on this year’s team. Over the past four seasons, 22 of 37 roster spots (59.4 percent) have been players from Florida.

As Jackson watched the Gators take the court to practice Tuesday afternoon at Linder Stadium, he saw two players that typify his philosophy: sophomore Billy Federhofer and freshman Andrew Butz.

Federhofer grew up in Miami and played at Krop High. Butz was born and raised in Vero Beach, his father Tom a UF graduate and prominent booster. Both could have gone elsewhere and played college tennis.

Neither drew as much recruiting interest as a pair of other in-state players on the Gators’ roster – sophomore Sekou Bangoura Jr. from Bradenton and Bob van Overbeek from Boca Raton. Bangoura and van Overbeek were world-class recruits who everyone was after.

Florida was lucky to get them. As for Federhofer and Butz, getting players like them to round out the roster fits the puzzle perfectly in Jackson’s view.

“It’s those other guys that we really want to identify our program, the guys who love to be at Florida and would kill for the Gators to be able to win,’’ Jackson said. “We want to win championships with those guys. That’s what I said was the goal, and we’re not moving from it.

“We are going to try and do it that way.’’

Butz grew up a Florida fan after being introduced to the school by his father on weekend trips to Gainesville for football games. When it was time for college, he didn’t have to look long for his home the next four years.

“I’ve always wanted to come here,’’ Butz said. “I realized from the beginning that there is a great environment here; everyone loves their sports here.”

Butz also had the added appeal of knowing Bangoura and the team’s other in-state players well from competing against them regularly as a junior player. He estimates that by the time he and Bangoura became UF teammates, they had played each other probably 25 times.

Meanwhile, Federhofer didn’t grow up a Gator fan like Butz despite being a native Floridian. It wasn’t until he was a sophomore in high school and Jackson started recruiting him that he thought seriously about spending college at UF.

In his final two years of high school in North Miami, Federhofer kept a close eye on the men’s tennis program and ended up an easy sell for Jackson.

“It was the program and everything they had to offer,’’ Federhofer said. “Every athletic program here is around top 10 in the country and they have won so many titles. They just treat the athletes very well on top of the academics being great.

“I just kept seeing the results and how good they were. I thought the training here would really help me, and it has really helped me.’’

The 16th-ranked Gators (14-8, 7-4) enter the SEC Tournament expected to contend for the title with Tennessee, Georgia and Kentucky. To win, they’ll need Federhofer at No. 5 singles and Butz at No. 6 to come through as much as the two international players on the roster: No. 1 player Alexandre Lacroix and No. 3 Nassim Slilam.

That’s been the plan all along.

“We want to recruit Florida first,’’ Jackson said. “We are very proud of our guys like Federhofer and Butz. I had an unwritten rule that we weren’t going to take more than three international guys. Basically, it’s been two or three guys most of the time, and the other guys from the U.S.

“In Florida, there is unbelievable [junior] tennis, and I think those kids should be getting opportunities at Florida. It’s something I feel good about and I think is the right thing to do.’’

TEAM FLORIDA

Gators men’s tennis coach Andy Jackson places a large emphasis on building his teams with in-state players. Here is a look at how UF’s current roster compares to those of the SEC’s other schools:

 

Team                     Total                       American                              In-State                                 Florida

Florida                   8                              6              75%                        6              75%                        6              75%

Georgia                 11                           8              72.7%                    3              27.3%                    1              9.1%

Kentucky               13                           7              53.8%                    4              30.8%                    2              15.4%

S. Carolina            10                           5              50%                        2              20%                        -

Tennessee            9                              4              44.4%                    3              33.3%                    1              11.1%

Vanderbilt             8                              7              87.5%                    2              25%                        -

Alabama               10                           5              50%                        2              20%                        1              10%

Arkansas               10                           4              40%                        2              20%                        -

Auburn                   8                              2              25%                        1              12.5%                    1              10%

LSU                        13                           4              30.7%                    2              15.4%                    1              7.7%

Ole Miss                8                              1              12.5%                    -                                               -

Mississippi St.      11                           4              36.4%                    1              9.1%                       1              9.1%

 

SEC Totals           119                         57           47.9%                     28           23.5%                     14           11.8%

 

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