April 30, 2012
Like every college student, all Haley Driver ever wanted was some balance in her life. She wanted 8 to come from adding 2 + 2 + 2 + 2. Instead she got it from 6 + 1 + 1 + 0.
But when you're one of the nation's top junior tennis players and you sign a scholarship at a school in one of the deepest women's tennis conferences in the nation, unbalanced is what you're agreeing to.
Driver, from Scottsdale, Ariz., committed to Boise State in the fall of 2010 during her senior year of high school. Just weeks later the Broncos' coaching staff was let go for NCAA recruiting violations involving another BSU recruit.
Driver changed her commitment to Oregon, and her first season with the Ducks last fall hinted at what was to come. On a team with four upperclassmen, the newcomer won 10 consecutive sets at the Ducks Invitational in late October to claim the tournament's main singles draw.
She also advanced to the finals at Cal State Fullerton's tournament and ended the fall with a team-best 9-1 singles record.
But in an athletics department bonded together -- to put it one way; perhaps more accurately described by others as "burdened together" -- with the idea that winning isn't everything, it's the only thing, Driver wondered, Whatever happened to 2 + 2 + 2 + 2?
Wasn't it possible to have tennis as a focal point of the collegiate experience without it becoming the only point?
Despite her on-court success, she started second-guessing her situation and kept coming back to the lessons of her junior coach, Wolf von Lindenau, who played collegiately at Montana State and had long ago instilled in Driver an interest in the state of Montana, sight unseen.
After some research, Driver reached out to Griz coach Steve Ascher via email and received -- within an hour -- a reply and follow-up phone call that still cause Driver to use exclamation points in the story's retelling.
The introductory phone call took 30 minutes. That was all that was needed.
Driver was seeking balance, and she found a coach who spends his summer shredding local trails on his mountain bike and his down time in winter trying to bring the inner Picabo Street out of his daughters on the slopes, all while earning Big Sky Conference Coach of the Year honors for his work with his team and bringing his program within a match of its first-ever conference championship.
She learned about a program that stresses every-day development and improvement at practice while maintaining an insatiable desire for competition. A program that champions -- despite the individuality of the sport -- the importance of team over the glory and goals of self
All in a setting where a run in the mountains overlooking campus can quickly reestablish 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 when one of the numbers seems to be getting out of alignment.
Haley Driver, who rose to a ranking as high as No. 20 nationally as a junior player, signed a scholarship offer with Montana recently and will begin finding her balance next fall as an eligible sophomore for the Grizzlies.
"The last two years have certainly been a rollercoaster ride, but I would not trade my experiences for anything," Driver said recently from Eugene, where she is four weeks into Oregon's spring quarter.
"I am thankful for the opportunities I've been given and the people I've been able to meet along the way. I have learned a lot about myself these last few years and have finally realized what I am looking for in a community, a school, a program, a team and a coach.
"Everything about Montana's program drew me to it. It's where I am going to be able to improve my tennis while enjoying a well-rounded college experience and education. The atmosphere that surrounds not only Missoula but also the university and tennis team is one that I want to be a part of.
"I could not possibly be more thrilled to be a part of this group of girls and playing for a coach who has done tremendous things in just a few short years. I am thankful there was a spot open for me and for the opportunity, and I plan on making the most of it."
Driver began her prep career by helping Scottsdale's Chaparral High to the 2008 Arizona Class 4A Division I state championship as a freshman. She then entered the world of academy tennis and ultimately graduated from Mt. Everest Academy in San Diego, a college preparatory school based completely on independent study.
Under the coaching of von Lindenau, Driver rose from a ranking in the 250s to as high as No. 20 nationally in the USTA rankings and No. 1 in her region. Her pre-collegiate career was highlighted and capped by a spot in the round of 32 at the 2010 USTA national championships in the girls 18 division in her final tournament as a junior.
The player who knocked Driver out of the national championships -- after Driver had taken the first set -- was Ester Goldfeld, who currently is playing No. 2 singles and No. 1 doubles as a freshman for Duke, the No. 3 ranked team in the nation.
Driver committed two months later to Boise State, then to Oregon, and now is wrapping up her first year at Oregon in preparation for a move this summer to Missoula.
Driver went 5-1 during Oregon's early spring duals schedule but has not played for the Ducks -- who are currently ranked No. 66 nationally -- since early February.
"I think one of the things Haley was looking for was a more personalized coaching experience and a more personalized community than she was getting," said Ascher, who will be starting his fifth year at Montana in the fall. "Oregon is heavily international, and I think she was looking for a different team dynamic as well.
"She really had a checklist of things she was looking for, and I think we fit that bill."
Ascher remembers Driver well from a national tournament he recruited in California, even though it took place two years ago.
"She was really consistent," he recalls. "She showed a lot of determination, a lot of competitive fire to get to the next ball.
"In talking to someone who has worked with Haley and has seen her play frequently, Haley comes to every single practice ready to compete and ready to put all her energy toward getting better at every moment. She really has the personality and character to do that."
Montana will return in the fall all six athletes who played singles against Sacramento State in the Big Sky Conference tournament championship match two weekends ago at Gold River, Calif.
A win in that match gave the Hornets their 11th straight Big Sky tournament title and their 92nd straight win against Big Sky competition. Montana played Sac State to a 5-2 decision during the regular season and was in line for a 5-2 (or better) result when the championship match was called after the Hornets recorded their fourth point.
The addition of Driver to an already deep team should help close the gap on Sacramento State, but Ascher is unwilling to predict where Driver will fit into the Montana lineup this far removed from the fall and even further from the spring.
"I don't do that with anybody on the team," he explained. "You always want to keep it open so the players know if they work at it and earn it, they will have the opportunity to play any number of positions."
Then he adds as a coda something that gets beyond coach-speak and provides a glimpse of what Montana is getting: "American players don't get opportunities for a scholarship (in the predominantly international Pac-12) unless they are really good."
Driver may be playing No. 1 next spring or No. 6, or she may be playing somewhere in between, but for someone trying to get balance and happiness out of her collegiate experience, the numbers that matter most will be 2 + 2 + 2 + 2.
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