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German Pipeline

German Pipeline

by Alex Schwartz

CORAL GABLES, Fla. – In her 19-year tenure at the helm of the University of Miami women’s tennis team, Paige Yaroshuk-Tews has coached two scholarship players from Germany.

Bianca Eichkorn, who hails from Tengen, competed for Miami from 2007-11 and Stephanie Wagner, a native of Amberg, did so from 2012-16.

“Nobody wanted to touch Bianca on the way in. People were telling me, ‘Ah, Bianca Eichkorn, she’s not ranked high enough in Germany,’” Yaroshuk-Tews calls. “And it just proves [what we can do, in] that she came to the Miami system, she started out fourth in our lineup—even Steffi [started there]—and their mentality and their coachability, mixed with kind of my mentality, both of these kids just skyrocketed.”

Indeed they did.

Eichkorn and Wagner combined for seven ITA All-America honors and three ACC Scholar-Athlete of the Year awards. Beyond that, both left Miami as the winningest singles player in program history, with Eichkorn breaking the record in 2011 and Wagner surpassing her by one in 2016.

Bianca Eichkorn

Now, entering the final season of her second decade in charge, Yaroshuk-Tews is set to welcome a third German to the fold: Isabella Pfennig.

“That’s a really funny story because the first time ever I talked about college was with Steffi. I think it was like five years ago at a tournament, a $15K tournament,” Pfennig said. “She talked to me and she asked me, ‘What about college tennis?’ I was in the eighth grade, I didn’t think about college at all . . . I listened to it, but I didn’t care too much about it because I had so much time left.”

Eventually, Pfennig indeed did care and she had a bevy of college choices to choose from. An outstanding student in addition to a top-notch junior tennis player, Pfennig took visits to Miami, Georgia Tech, Harvard, USC and Yale.

During a 15-day span last August and September, Pfennig toured all five schools. She entered the overseas trip with an open mind about her future college destination and, before doing so, once again spoke with Wagner, who is now ranked No. 270 in the world.

“I saw her last summer, before my visit, when I wasn’t sure where I will go to,” Pfennig recalled. “She said that I will love it [at Miami] and she said that she wasn’t sure before her visit, as well, but when she went she knew from the first moment on that she wants to go to Miami. I said, ‘Yeah, we’ll see’ and I shall write her, and then I went to Miami. I wrote her a few months ago and she said she’s proud, I will have fun and she wishes me the best of luck. I am still in connection with her.”

Stephanie Wagner

While Wagner gave her some general comments about Miami, they were not what sealed the deal for Pfennig. Rather, it was her experience in Coral Gables.

From the coaches to the players to the academics to the scenic views, Miami checked the boxes for Pfennig and she soon knew she had found her future home.

“Miami was [the choice] just because of the overall impression. It was so cool meeting all the people and they were so welcoming and so nice to me,” Pfennig said. “Also, the practice, when I watched it, everybody was so focused, but they were having fun at the same time. So, I really liked the people and, of course, the academic level was awesome. The campus is gorgeous.”

Pfennig intends to major in business, as she likes the subject and has seen both her father, Michael, and older brother, David, pursue careers in that realm. Michael, coincidentally, attended UCLA the same time as Yaroshuk-Tews, although the two did not know each other.

Isabella Pfennig

When Pfennig came on her visit to Miami, Michael accompanied her, as did her mother, Sabine, and younger brother, Nicolas. There, they bonded not only with Yaroshuk-Tews, but also with the coach’s family and players.

“Very worldly family, very cultured, very smart, understands the American system, understands college athletics in the States.” Yaroshuk-Tews said. “She was looking at an interesting variety of schools . . . [and] academics are really important to her. Her dad wanted her to explore all the top academic schools and he also wanted her to explore the top tennis schools.

“He wanted . . . to educate her; family wanted her to make the right decision for herself. When you’re recruiting kids, at least for me, it’s so important when the family is involved,” Yaroshuk-Tews added. “For me, you can see when you have a solid family in front of you. This is a kid that is not only very solid herself, but her family understands the types of kids that have come through the program, where they’ve started, where they’ve ended up. I’m really excited to get this kid under my belt.”

Although the family’s plans to spend extra time in the City Beautiful after the visit were derailed by an impending hurricane, they saw enough to know Miami was a good fit.

"That’s a really funny story because the first time ever I talked about college was with Steffi. I think it was like five years ago at a tournament, a $15K tournament. She talked to me and she asked me, ‘What about college tennis?’ I was in the eighth grade, I didn’t think about college at all."

Germany’s former top-ranked U18 player does not have any specific goals for her time at The U and rather is more focused on competing with maximum effort and motivating her teammates.

In fact, after taking part in team club matches in the summertime and playing soccer as a child, Pfennig is quite excited to experience the unique nature of college tennis.

“I really like this atmosphere, not only playing for yourself, but pushing the others,” Pfennig shared. “I’m looking forward to that the most, to be part of a team and practice together.”

As for the type of on-court style she will bring to Miami, Pfennig feels much of her success comes from her lower body.

“I’m not so tall, so I have to move a lot and my legs have to work, definitely,” Pfennig said. “I try to use my forehand as a weapon . . . so I play [with a] spin or a bit of slice and try to do volleys.”

The 5-foot-3 standout also mentioned her speed and ability to get to many balls, while conceding that her backhand and serve are areas that need the most work.

Meanwhile, when Yaroshuk-Tews talks about Pfennig’s game, she focuses much more on physical and mental attributes than she does a style of play.

“I think she’s an aggressive baseliner. I think she’s very physical. I think she’s mentally tough, very disciplined,” Yaroshuk-Tews said. “. . . Has the ability to move the ball around the court really well. Physically, I think, has the ability to just outlast other players. She needs to improve things in her game, like a lot of juniors need to improve coming into college, but, I think, with her mindset, it’s going to happen and it’s probably going to happen within her first year.”

Yaroshuk-Tews also noted that Pfennig, a four-time German National Junior Championships winner, has a style reminiscent of many players from her homeland.

“I really like this atmosphere, not only playing for yourself, but pushing the others. I’m looking forward to that the most, to be part of a team and practice together.”

Once again, Yaroshuk-Tews thinks it is more about mental fortitude than ball-striking ability, serve strength or foot speed.

“The discipline, the work ethic and the commitment that I have seen from Germans since I’ve been coaching has been unbelievable,” Yaroshuk-Tews said. “They’re very mature. They communicate very well, positives and negatives. They’re able to speak what’s on their mind. I don’t feel like they have that same learning curve as sometimes I have with other kids.”

While it is too early to make any comparisons or conclusions, if that indeed proves true, Pfennig has a bright future ahead on the path set by her fellow countrywomen.