Jan. 30, 2003
By Josh Griffin
The Santa Clara
Basketball coaching legend Al McGuire once said, "The best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores." Of course, McGuire was not familiar with Santa Clara sophomore Francisco Zepponi, who began his Bronco career with a bang in his first season on the Mission Campus.
Zepponi set a school record for singles victories, finishing with a 30-8 overall record. Playing in the No. 5 singles position, he helped the team equal its highest ever national ranking at 57th. Life could not have been better for the first year college student from nearby Pleasanton, Calif., as he adjusted to life at a school with high academic standards and an up-and-coming tennis program.
By the middle of the season, his father, Roy Zepponi, had been in and out of the hospital with what doctors suspected to be kidney and bladder stones. The only hitch was that his father was not improving, and the doctors had no answer to the problems.
Roy began missing his son's matches, both home and away, which began to take a toll on his only son.
"The first road trip that he couldn't go to in the season was Fresno State, and I just wasn't in the match mentally," recalled Zepponi. "I could have cared less if we won or lost, and it was one of our biggest matches of the year. I went out and lost 2-1, and just didn't feel like there was anything there to fight for."
His father was able to make it to the West Coast Conference tennis tournament, where Francisco won his 30th and final game of the season against the University of San Diego. Francisco's 30th win of his freshman season would, however, be the last time that Roy would ever see his son play tennis.
Roy Zepponi passed away right after the end of the season in May, giving into undetected pancreatic cancer that had spread to his stomach and back.
"He was the person that I always looked for on the sidelines," said Zepponi. "I could be winning a match, or losing 5-0, 40-love in the second set, and I could look over to him and I could see that he's always there supporting me and I know that he doesn't care if I win or lose. It was a leaning post for me when I played."
Coaches and teammates agree that Zepponi has handled the emotions of losing his father, friend and biggest fan with grace and maturity.
"Having his father pass away was a tough thing for him, and a tough thing for his family," said first-year Head Coach George Husack. "The tough part was losing the friendship of his father. I think over the summer, he questioned whether he liked playing tennis or being around it, which his father was a big part of, now that his father wasn't there."
Zepponi has not only acknowledged his commitment to the game of tennis and his teammates at Santa Clara, but has also vaulted from the No. 5 singles roster spot to No. 2 singles. Part of this is due to the departures of freshman Chris Lam and sophomore Michael Duong, who both transferred after the 2002 season, as well as the graduation of senior Victor Carmago. However, Zepponi's impressive freshman campaign and his off-season development have made him a legitimate force as a No. 2 singles player.
While Zepponi's credentials are unquestioned, the jump from No. 5 to No. 2 is no small order for any player, considering that he will regularly be facing nationally ranked singles players.
"It's definitely going to be a big transition for him," said Husack. "He wants to play number two, and he's earned that right. He can hang with any player in the country, but for him to win matches, he's going to have to change his game plan - not a lot, but a little bit from last year."
Last season, Zepponi was asked by the coaches to take more chances on the court, forcing the action against his opposition. As he steps up to the higher level, he is realizing that he can no longer expect to overpower his opponents.
"He is finding guys at this level are able to fend off his shots, whereas last year the competition he faced could not handle his shots on a consistent basis," said Assistant Coach Brett Masi.
Zepponi began the season by defeating Kevin Casey of Division III UC-Santa Cruz in straight sets, 6-2, 6-3. He lost two matches last weekend at No. 61 Arizona and No. 41 Arizona State, by scores of 6-2, 6-4 and 6-1, 6-0 respectively. After some slight adjustments in his game, his coaches expect him to defeat the opponent's No. 2 players.
"He even admitted that [playing No. 2] would be rougher," said Masi. "He can do it, but it's a matter of him making the adjustments."
His ascension to No. 2 singles will also require him to take on a higher leadership role, after the departure of three of the team's top singles players from last year.
"Last year, I didn't have a leadership role because I wasn't a captain," said Zepponi. "I think I lead by example as I prepared for every single match. This year, playing two, I'm going to be playing a totally different caliber of player, and I'm expected to stay in every single match and still keep fighting like I did last year. So, I think it does bring a leadership role. They don't want to see one of their top two players down and all disappointed."
Husack has little doubt about the leadership abilities of his rising sophomore, noting that he received votes to be a team captain, an honor not often bestowed upon underclassmen.
"He leads by example, but he's not afraid to speak his mind," said Husack. "When we had votes for team captain this year, he received several votes, so guys recognize his leadership. Beyond the fact that he leads by example, he is very supportive of everyone else."
Should Zepponi reach the potential that he has demonstrated, he may in fact prove McGuire's thesis to be true.