Tennis stars make their mark at USC

The USC men’s and women’s tennis teams have found similar success over the last few years — success due in large part to two players.

Captains of their respective squads, junior Steve Johnson and senior Maria Sanchez have quietly risen to the top.

Top-notch talent · Junior Steve Johnson has helped lead the Trojans to a Pac-10 championship and a 21-2 mark during the regular season. Now, he is looking to lead USC to its third-consecutive NCAA title. - Daily Trojan file photo

Between March 14 and April 11, both were atop the collegiate tennis hierarchy, making NCAA history as the first male and female ranked No. 1 from the same school.

“I feel really fortunate and honored to be a part of this,” Sanchez said. “I know Steve’s a great player and works really hard too, so it’s great that we can both be number one together.”

Sanchez is now ranked No. 2, while Johnson has stayed at the No. 1 spot.

Individually, they are two of the most accomplished athletes at USC.

In his freshman and sophomore seasons, Johnson and the team won back-to-back national championships, bringing the crown home to the Trojans for the first time since 2002. This year, with a 21-2 overall record and Pac-10 championship, the team is poised for a three-peat.

Johnson, who co-captains the Trojans with senior Jaak Poldma, is undefeated this season. The journey to the top has been tough, but Johnson has proved time and again he is up to the challenge.

“Coming into college was a big wake up call,” Johnson said. “I realized that talent and what you did in the past doesn’t mean much. I learned to have a work ethic.”

And he learned quickly. USC men’s coach Peter Smith praised Johnson’s dedication and determination, and said he is always eager to improve his game.

“You don’t win national championships without special people, and he’s as special as they come,” Smith said.

Sanchez, in her final season with the Women of Troy, captains her team. She, too, has worked hard to get to the top. Sanchez played at No. 5 her freshman season and would work her way up the ladder to finally land the No. 1 spot her junior season.

“When I first found out I was No. 1, it was definitely a relief,” Sanchez said. “This is where I feel like I should be right now. But it’s really just a ranking. I’m trying to focus on the process and getting better.”

USC women’s coach Richard Gallien was quick to emphasize Sanchez’ progress, crediting her passion as what separates her from the rest.

“She has a ferocious desire,” Gallien said. “Not everyone has got the courage to put themselves on the line every day.”

Aside from their many accomplishments, what is perhaps most impressive about Johnson’s and Sanchez’s respective games is their humility. Their modesty, leadership and undeniable skill, has earned them both an unquestionable respect among teammates.

“When we were playing well together, I felt that we were unstoppable,” said freshman Ray Sarmiento, who started the season playing at No. 1 doubles with Johnson. “He is kind of a mentor to me and I’m learning from him.”

Junior Alison Ramos, who has played alongside Sanchez for nearly three seasons, was just as impressed.

“There’s passion when she plays,” Ramos said. “She is a fighter. She really pushes the importance of family and team, and she really wants us to come together.”

Through it all, Sanchez and Johnson have stayed grounded, competing with a love for the game and remembering the sport relies just as much on teamwork.

“Individual success is not much unless you have a group of people to share it with,” Johnson said. “Two of the greatest moments of my life were winning the national titles and being able to just go hug a bunch of my friends.”

Johnson and Sanchez have accomplished much while donning the cardinal and gold, both individually and with their teammates, but there’s still more they’d like to do.

“I’m hoping to get a couple more national titles,” Johnson said. “That’s been the goal from day one.”

Sanchez expressed similar sentiments.

“To win a team national championship, that’d be most important to me,” Sanchez said.