Aztecs women’s tennis team and its 65-year-old, insanely fit coach head to NCAA Tournament

It was 1980, and Peter Mattera was graduating from San Diego State with a degree in exercise and nutritional science. His parents owned a gourmet market business, and he figured, to use his phrasing, “I would trickle into that.”

Then SDSU women’s tennis coach Carol Plunkett, knowing he had a background in tennis and fitness, offered him a job as an assistant. It paid $ 5,000.

Forty-two years later, Mattera is still on the Mesa, SDSU’s longest tenured athletic department employee and head coach of the women’s tennis program since 1993, still around, still winning. The Aztecs (17-6) claimed the Mountain West tournament title last week by not dropping a singles match and now head to the NCAA Tournament on Friday against 19th-ranked USC at Pepperdine.

It is SDSU’s 23rd appearance since the NCAA added a women’s tennis championship in 1982. Mattera has been around for all 23. His next victory will be No. 400 as head coach.

He worked as Plunkett’s assistant for a few years, supplementing his income with private lessons and shifts in the family business, then left SDSU when he couldn’t make the finances work. He missed it and returned a year later, then took over for Plunkett, a member of SDSU’s Hall of Fame, when she stepped down for health reasons during the 1993-94 season.

If you walk into his office, you’ll still see pictures of her.

“To remind me how I got here and my roots,” Mattera says. “I learned so much from Carol. She had this personality where she was very competitive but never quite to the point where she went berserk like you see some people do. I tried to assimilate a lot of that. She taught me something I still remember about a team – that they’re 18 to 22 years old and they’re going to go like this. ”

He waves his finger up and down.

“And she said, ‘Your job as a coach is to do this.’ I still remember her finger going like this, ”he says, drawing a flat, horizontal line in the air. “They’re young people, and they’re going to go through a lot of highs and lows. She taught me how to do this job with class and always have the best interests of the student-athletes at heart and try to be that stabilizer of the ship, and not ride the waves with them. ”

He does ride waves, though, in the Pacific Ocean. He also runs. And lifts weights. And does yoga. And paddle boards.

You won’t find a fitter, 65-year-old coach in America, maybe the planet. And you won’t find many fitter college tennis teams.

Off-court fitness regimens are more accepted in the sport now, but Mattera was among the first to implement them. And he has with a twist: He does the same workouts alongside them.

No one can remember the last time a player beat him in a deep sand run.

“I don’t do it as fast as I used to, but I still do it and I love that,” Mattera says. “I wouldn’t feel right if I asked them to do something that I don’t want to do. It seems like it goes hand in hand. ”

And it does.

“It’s the first time I’ve ever seen someone his age do workouts with us like that,” says Nado Nadozie, a senior from Los Angeles. “It helps motivate us. If he’s doing it and is out there with a smile on his face, all the girls are like, ‘I have to do it, too. I have to beat him. ‘ I mean, this guy is fit. ”

Adds Oklahoma State transfer Bunyawi Thanchaiwat: “He’s not like,‘ You have to do this while I watch. I’m going to do it with you. ‘ That makes us have the desire to work hard. He inspires us. ”

The Aztecs regularly reached the NCAA Tournament through the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s before hitting a dry spell recently. The conference championship is the first since 2003, the NCAA trip the first since 2013 – sweet validation that their grandfather coach hasn’t lost his magic.

It wasn’t looking that way as recently as a few weeks ago, when Thanchaiwat at No. 1 singles and several other players were sick or injured. The Aztecs closed the regular season with a 4-0 loss at Air Force and dropped to the No. 3 seed in the Mountain West tournament in Oro Valley, Ariz.

But Thanchaiwat returned and swept her three singles matches at the tournament, improving her season record to 14-0. The Aztecs beat Wyoming, Colorado State and UNLV by a combined 12-1, sweeping the singles and losing only once in doubles.

SDSU senior Nnena Nadozie celebrates the winning point at the Mountain West women’s tennis championships in Oro Valley, Ariz.

(C. Morgan Engel / NCAA Photos)

During Monday’s NCAA Tournament selection show, streamed live into an athletic department auditorium, they cheered when their name appeared on the 64-team bracket. They shrieked when their opponent Friday appeared: USC. The winner gets No. 8 Pepperdine on Saturday. (USD also made the women’s tournament and opens against Arizona State on Friday.)

The Trojans (17-11) were originally on the schedule in March. In January, Mattera got a call from their coach saying they had overscheduled and were dropping the match.

“We were extremely disappointed,” says Mattera. “I thought it was awfully late. But it wasn’t my call. Maybe this is tennis karma coming back to reward us, because we would like to play them. We’re happy about that challenge. We think we’re pretty good and we’d like to measure ourselves against somebody like that. ”

It’s a deep, diverse, veteran team that features six seniors and players from six countries across four continents. It’s not a swan song for Mattera, though. Thanchaiwat and two other seniors plan to exercise their option for a fifth “COVID” season. He’ll add some recruits and be back next year, and beyond.

“Every day is different, which I love,” says Mattera. “I don’t like every day being the exact same. You just don’t know what the challenges and rewards are going to be each day on this job. That’s what keeps me coming back. I figure if I can still do it, and I think I can, and I think we can be effective at it, then I’m going to stay until I no longer either feel that way or until the boss says it’s time. ”

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