BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO
Bishop McGann-Mercy senior Liz Rossi, who has committed to play for Mount St. Mary’s (Md.), was joined at the signing ceremony by, from left, the school principal, Dr. Steven Cheesman, Athletic Director Paula Nickerson and Coach Mike Clauberg.
Eighth-graders aren’t supposed to play like that.
That was the essence of what Bishop McGann-Mercy High School’s girls tennis coach, Mike Clauberg, was thinking when he saw Liz Rossi play five years ago as a newcomer to the varsity team. At the time, Rossi was taking games from Gosia Pawlak, who was the Monarchs’ top singles player at the time. Talk about an eye-opener. Clauberg had a tough time believing what he was seeing. “I wasn’t sure if she was just lucky that she was winning games,” he said.
It wasn’t luck. She was that good.
Rossi went on to become the winningest player in McGann-Mercy history. She immediately won a place in the starting lineup, and became a first singles player when she was a freshman. Over the course of her high school career, Rossi compiled an 83-13 record and led the Monarchs to three Suffolk County League VIII championships.
Now the senior is preparing for the next stop in her tennis career: Mount St. Mary’s University (Md.).
Rossi, who accepted an athletic scholarship from the Division I school, was the focus of cameras during a signing ceremony in McGann-Mercy’s chapel on Friday morning. The school principal, Dr. Steven Cheeseman, and its athletic director, Paula Nickerson, participated in the ceremony along with Rossi’s coach and teammates.
“It was just overwhelming,” Rossi said after the ceremony, which was attended by her parents, Kathleen and James. “It was interesting because I just started to realize that this was it. I’m really starting to wind down my senior year and college is fast approaching.”
Clauberg said Rossi will be the first McGann-Mercy player he has coached over the course of 10 years who will go on to play Division I tennis.
“It’s everything you ever dreamed as a coach,” he said. “That’s your ultimate goal, if you can get an athlete to the next level. It’s really a fabulous feeling.”
Other Division I schools such as Providence, St. Bonaventure, Lafayette and Lehigh, as well as many Division III schools, recruited Rossi. Why did she choose Mount St. Mary’s?
Since Rossi is a spiritual person, it should come as no surprise that religion had more than a little to do with her selecting the second-oldest Catholic university in America.
Rossi said that when she visited the school in Emmitsburg, Md., in late March, “The first thing that I noticed was that there was a statue of the blessed mother, a golden statue, and once I saw that I just had the feeling that this was going to be a beautiful place, and then once I saw it from the highway, it was just love at first sight. The girls there are amazing. They’re very nice. They’re very good players, and the coach is a great fit, and just everything about it, I think, says that it’s my school.”
Rossi said she had made her final decision the day she returned home from that visit.
Coach Phil Hammond, who guided Mount St. Mary’s to a 16-5 record last season, said in an e-mail: “Liz is the kind of student-athlete that we are looking for here at Mount St. Mary’s. Her high school tennis experience and success at McGann-Mercy will give her a good foundation to build on.”
Rossi remembers those eighth-grade days when she played against Pawlak in practice and learned something about herself.
“It was really something,” she said. “It made me realize that maybe I had a chance at tennis.”
Rossi’s tennis-playing exploits have extended beyond school grounds. In January 2009, the Flanders girl was the top-ranked 16-year-old in the Long Island region by the United States Tennis Association. The two-time all-county player also won a silver medal in the New York Empire State Games in July 2008.
But the road to Mount St. Mary’s was a long one for her.
“It was a lot of lessons, a lot of playing year-round … just a lot of hard work, a lot of passion, a lot of help from my family and friends to keep me going,” Rossi said. “There were times when I wasn’t sure if I wanted to keep going, but now I realize that this is the right choice for me.”
“I take a lot of pride in what I accomplished, and I give it back to Mercy,” she continued. “I give all my success to them and my coach, who first discovered me, without whom I could not have gotten to this point.”
Clauberg said Rossi’s heart and passion on the court are what he will remember most about her as a player. “I think of how hard she fought,” he said, “and how much she escalated her game to the very last match of her career.”
Asked what it will be like not to have her on the team next season, Clauberg said: “I don’t even want to think about it because sometimes it can put you in tears. I don’t think about it. When next year comes, I’ll just have to deal with it.”
Nickerson said Rossi is a role model for the school’s younger female athletes.
“Athletes are putting Mercy on the map, I think, and that’s a great thing,” the athletic director said. “Obviously, I’m extremely proud of Liz and her accomplishments. She’s taking the name of Mercy on and forward, and that’s a great feather in our caps.”
Rossi said she appreciated the fact that her teammates were there for her at the ceremonial signing.
“It really meant a lot to me,” she said. “It was like a last hurrah for all of us.”