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Thursday April 19, 2012Mather Leads With Actions, Not Words, as Gators Head to SEC Tournament

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- So here it is, the start of the postseason, and members of the Florida women’s tennis team might as well take the court with giant orange-and-blue bulls-eyes on their backs. 


What else is new? 


“I think we have that every year,” Gators coach Roland Thornqvist said. “The Final Four has really been par for every player on this team for the last 30 years.” 


Third-ranked UF (18-1) is the top-seed in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, which opens Thursday at Oxford, Miss, and will face either eighth-seeded Tennessee or ninth-seeded Auburn in Friday’s quarterfinals. The Gators are two-time defending tournament champions, with three straight undefeated regular seasons against SEC foes. 


Come what may from the league event, Florida will then gear up to defend its NCAA championship, the fifth in school history, won last May on the home court of fellow national power Stanford. 


In the Thornqvist vernacular, the Gators finished well under “par” a year ago -- think Tiger Woods’ pre-car crash dominance -- and fully expect another birdie barrage this offseason. Rare, in fact, are the UF players who know what it’s like to get on Thornqvist’s tennis version of a bogie train. 


Joanna Mather, the lone senior on the squad, is one of those exceptions.


That’s probably why her attitude and perspective are so exceptional. 


“I’ve enjoyed every moment that I’ve been here,” UF’s team captain the last two seasons said this week. “There’s nothing I would change, nothing I’d do differently.” 


Let’s back up on that last statement. 


Mather came to UF following a sterling junior career in Duluth, Ga. She dropped her first four college matches, including a loss to the No. 7 player at UCF. At one point during the season, due to a series of injuries/issues, the Gators played matches with just four scholarship players. National semifinalist the year before -- that would be a Thornqvist “par,” by the way -- Florida in Mather’s freshman year went 16-10, setting a school record for dual-match losses in a season, and finished a pedestrian fourth in the SEC.


Far from “par.” 


Thornqvist nods when asked about that 2009 anomaly. 


“Even though we were decimated with mistakes and injuries, we established a work ethic and a mentality in ‘09 that fortunately stuck with us,” he said. “We had to work hard. We had to work smart. We had to play with injuries just to field a team. That sense of urgency and hard-nosed, come-to-practice-everyday attitude stayed with us ever since. And it’s largely because of Joanna. She’s been the catalyst.” 


No one who follows Florida women’s tennis will forget how Georgia, ranked second in the country, came to Scott Linder Stadium to face a Gators squad with those four lone scholarship players and a collection of walk-ons. Despite the odds, UF’s foursome -- Mather included -- upset the Bulldogs 4-3 to keep what has now become the nation’s longest home winning streak alive; a run that stands at 105 straight today. 


“I actually have some of the greatest memories from that year,” Mather said. “Every win was such a big deal for us. And beating Georgia will be in my mind forever. It’s not as great a win as winning the national championship, but we were so happy.”


Basically, Mather has been happy ever since. Make that ecstatic.  


She’s been a key cog in a program that is 78-5 over the last three seasons and has hoisted a U-Haul full of hardware. Individually, Mather is 59-13 in dual-match singles, including 30-4 in the SEC and 10-0 this season while playing at mostly the No. 3 spot. On the doubles court, Mather has won 103 matches, the 10th most in program history, with an 80-13 record in dual-match doubles and 18-1 mark this year. Off the court she was named to the SEC women’s tennis Community Service Team.

Mather is the leader of this team, but not with her words. She’s all about actions. 


“She is the nicest person and works so hard, and that’s where her leadership shows,” said junior Allie Will, who enters postseason as the nation’s No. 1-ranked singles player and half of the nation’s No. 1 doubles team along with sophomore Sofie Oyen. “It’s shows in fitness. It shows when she makes sure we stretch. Roland always says it comes down to the little things and Jo is on top of us to make sure we’re doing what we’re supposed to do to be successful.” 


Mather, who will graduate next month with a degree in management, and her teammates, all of whom are back from the 2011 championship squad, obviously knows the drill.


“I think they were like, ‘That was cool, but now we want to do it again.’ That’s where all their heads are right now,” Thornqvist said. “We’ve worked really hard this spring --  really hard -- because our are minds were right from the beginning. It’s a great group of players here. The attitude, the friendship, the unselfishness ... all of it.” 


Time to tee it up. 


The goal, again and always, is breaking par. 


“It’s hard to believe how far we’ve come. It almost feels like a dream, but I’ve loved every moment; the highs and the lows,” Mather said, breaking into a smile. “Good times then, good times now.” 



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