COLUMBIA – Missouri athletics officially moved from the Big 12 Conference to the Southeastern Conference in July 2012 and so did tennis player Cierra Gaytan-Leach.
The junior, who is the No. 1 player for Missouri, transferred from Texas late last summer because she didn’t get along with the Longhorns' coaching staff.
Missouri tennis coach Sasha Schmid learned that Gaytan-Leach was going to transfer while recruiting July 17 at the National Clay Court Championships in Memphis, Tenn.
Two days later, Gaytan-Leach visited Columbia and spent the day watching the tennis team train and spending time with the players.
“We tried to show her that we’re a program where she can come in here and make a statement on the team,” Schmid said.
On July 23, Gaytan-Leach committed to Missouri from her hometown of Corona del Mar, Calif.
Gaytan-Leach earned the No. 1 spot at Missouri with strong play in the fall that included making the semifinals of the USTA/ITA Central Regionals.
“She established herself as somebody who has confidence, who can play at the top of our lineup and really have a lot of belief in her aggressive game,” Schmid said.
Gaytan-Leach started the spring schedule 9-0 before SEC play began. The competition in the SEC is better than the Big 12 and was a huge adjustment, Gaytan-Leach said.
“Everyone you play is a stronger caliber player, and everyone is fighting harder than they did in the Big 12,” Gaytan-Leach said. “In the Big 12 you can get away with a couple teams here and there that you can roll over. Not in the SEC. Everyone is tough.”
Gaytan-Leach has played nine players ranked in the top 40 of the Intercollegiate Tennis Association women’s singles rankings, eight of them from the SEC. Her two victories were against No. 31 Lesile Hureau of Indiana on Jan. 11 and No. 34 Jaklin Alawi of South Carolina on Jan. 26. She hasn't beaten a top-40 player since then.
When preparing for a top opponent, Gaytan-Leach, who is currently ranked No. 86, tries to ignore the rankings. It is easier said than done.
“That is hard because you know who’s ranked, and who’s not, so it’s a mental mind-check on yourself,” Gaytan-Leach said.
Throughout the season, Gaytan-Leach has improved her game by getting stronger and hitting the ball better. She hopes to improve her mental game when she takes the court next season as a senior for the Tigers.
“I have grown and learned a lot about discipline,” Cierra-Gaytan said. “Going into my senior year, I’ll be prepared to take off.”
Missouri begins play in the SEC Tournament on Wednesday in Starkville, Miss. The Tigers are scheduled to play against Mississippi State at 10 a.m.