GANSEVOORT, N.Y. – In just her second competitive tennis match in a decade, Penn State Abington senior Kimberly Ochester proved that she could once again be a valuable asset to the Nittany Lion tennis team. Not just through her quality play, though, but by her quality character and acts of sportsmanship as well.
Ochester, a 29-year-old non-traditional student at Abington, was back in action for just the second time since rejoining the team after a 10-year hiatus when the Nittany Lions squared off against Bryn Athyn College on Tuesday, March 20. Just a few months earlier, Ochester never would have guessed she’d be back on the tennis team, thinking her eligibility was up due to her age and having her doubts that she could keep up with the younger players even if she did come back. With the persistence of Abington head tennis coach David Sheaffer, though, Ochester’s concerns were quelled after Sheaffer convinced her that she could still compete at the college level.
After learning that Ochester was back on campus through another one of his non-traditional student-athletes, Sheaffer reached out to Ochester and explained to her that he was hoping her “veteran experience” compared to the rest of his young team would allow her to eventually become a starter. That’s how the situation played out, as Ochester ultimately worked her way back into the fifth singles starting position, a spot that she earned thanks to her unique power game and where she would be competing from when facing Bryn Athyn.
The duel would be played on the Bryn Athyn campus and would mark the first-ever match for the school as a varsity sport, as the program was entering its first year of competition while sporting a roster mostly made up of underclassmen and players who were new to the game of tennis. This was evident very early on in the match, as Ochester took immediate control of the contest and noticed her opponent had very little playing experience. Rather than piling it on and attempting to embarrass her opponent as some athletes may have, though, Ochester instead decided to do something rare: she began to offer advice and tips to her opponent.
“I knew early on that I was in control of the match and that my opponent was obviously new to the sport, so I figured why not help her out?” Ochester said. “My biggest thing was I wanted to help her not get hurt, especially when I noticed a few things that she was doing that could cause her harm.”
Ochester began sharing some simple safety tips, like how to properly store the tennis balls during a serve when she noticed her opponent leaving one ball on the ground beside her foot directly behind the baseline. Ochester also quickly abandoned her power game early in the match, instead using her soft second serve to start the point before lobbing the ball back to her opponent shortly into the point to give her a better play on the ball.
Although she went on to easily win the match, Ochester saw potential in her opponent. So, as is tradition in tennis, Ochester met her opponent at the net to shake hands at the conclusion of the match, but instead of just saying “good game” and parting ways, Ochester also asked if she wanted to meet for a bit and go over some tips and pointers. The idea was something that Ochester had in mind towards the end of the match but was a little hesitant to go through with since she was unsure how her opponent would react, but she quickly realized she had made the right decision when her offer was gladly accepted.
The two spoke for about 15 to 20 minutes, where Ochester gave a variety of tennis etiquette tips that ranged from how the scoring works to which side of the court to start each game on and even how to enter and exit the courts while other matches are in progress. She also advised her to play to her strengths, citing an example from their match to prove her point.
“I told her to find out what your strengths are, find out what your opponent’s weaknesses are and take advantage of both of those as much as you can,” Ochester said. “During our match when I started lobbing balls her way, she was getting frustrated with those and couldn’t handle them, so I knew I could take advantage of that weakness to win, and I shared that with her because if she can find a weakness in her opponent she should use it to her advantage.”
She also reminded her to be confident during her matches, reiterating advice that she shared to both her and her partner when they were competing against each other in a doubles match earlier that day.
“I noticed during our doubles match that both girls weren’t very confident in their calls, so I told them to be confident in those because your call is your call and you stand by it,” she said. “I was told that same advice back when I first started playing and it definitely helped, so I made sure that both girls knew to be confident in whatever call they make.”
Ochester was glad to lend a helping hand to an up-and-coming player, but she sure didn’t do it for the attention. Playing on the courts furthest away from the Bryn Athyn campus, Ochester didn’t think anyone was close enough to even see them play, let alone take notice of her actions. One person in particular did – Bryn Athyn athletics director Matthew Kennedy.
His first reaction? "This is what Division III athletics are truly about.”
“I was impressed with how natural Kim was at helping our young players understand the game better,” explained Kennedy, who noted that a handful of players on the team were just giving tennis a try this year. “Our young players could have been discouraged coming out of their first match as a varsity program. Kim's encouragement and compassion aided in our players wanting to come back for more.”
Kennedy, who immediately sent an email to Penn State Abington athletics director Karen Weaver to express his appreciation for Ochester’s actions, explained what a moment like that could do for a first-year program.
“I believe it is moments like this that allow our teams to grow through experience. We have programs like Penn State Abington that we can role ourselves after. Especially for a college like Bryn Athyn that has such a strong emphasis on service to others. We return almost everyone in our women's program next year. It is experiences like this that will allow us to grow through mirroring the on-court etiquette we have experienced in Kim, and to set small goals for ourselves moving forward.”
Weaver was appreciative of Kennedy’s email and agreed with his sentiments.
"We've enjoyed a good relationship with Bryn Athyn College administratively, but what Kim did transcends collegiality,” Weaver said. “Her compassion and ability to step outside of the competitive moment is what really sets this apart from other gestures. I am inspired by her actions, and imagine her teammates were as well."
Helping others is nothing new to Ochester. Against her family’s wishes, Ochester originally left Abington after her freshman year to help care for her father, who had recently been diagnosed with Leukemia. Shortly thereafter, while working with children at the prestigious Arthur Ashe Youth Tennis Center in Philadelphia, she was approached by a recruiter for CityYear, an AmeriCorps program that runs after-school programs to help tutor, mentor and do in-class support for underprivileged inner city youth. Seeing it as an opportunity to help others, Ochester naturally decided to join the program, which would become a decision that changed her life forever.
“While serving my second term, where I was placed in Baton Rouge, La., I truly found myself and figured out exactly what my purpose in life was,” explained Ochester. “I decided then and there that I would return to school, complete my degree, and would eventually run my own community service program for inner city youth.”
Fast forward to her match against Bryn Athyn, and it’s no wonder Ochester was so willing to help out a couple of young, developing tennis players. Although, ironically enough, Ochester wasn’t so sure if she would have taken the same course of action during her first go-around in college, prior to her life-changing experiences.
“It’s actually funny because I don’t know if I would have done that 10 years ago since I was much more competitive and driven by winning then than I am now,” said Ochester, who will graduate from Abington with a Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology and social science. “At this point in my life, winning isn’t as important as it once was to me and it certainly isn’t everything, but it may be very important to these younger players, so I would love to help them out in any way I can. I just did what I would hope that anybody would do in my situation, which was to help new players learn the game better and not get discouraged. “
Sheaffer, citing Ochester as a “natural leader,” concurred.
“Kim’s in a different place in her life now than she was a decade ago,” Sheaffer said. “She’s older now and approaches the game with a slightly different perspective. So when she noticed a younger player who was struggling, she empathized with her and did what she could to help.”
What she ended up doing, Sheaffer noted, is something that will undoubtedly have a lasting impact.
“Nobody will probably remember the results of this match 10 years from now, but Kim’s opponent or someone from Bryn Athyn may remember Kim’s act of kindness on that day for the rest of their lives, and that’s what truly makes it important.”
And, as Kennedy pointed out, that is what Division III athletics are truly about.
The North Eastern Athletic Conference has thirteen NCAA
Division III member institutions which include: Cazenovia College,
College of St. Elizabeth, Gallaudet University, Keuka College,
Lancaster Bible College, Pennsylvania State University - Abington,
Pennsylvania State University - Berks, Pennsylvania State
University -Harrisburg, SUNY Cobleskill, SUNY Institute of
Technology, SUNY Morrisville State College, Wells College, and
Wilson College. Associate members are: Hilbert College (M
Lacrosse), Medaille College (M&W Lacrosse) and Rutgers
University - Camden (M Golf). The North Eastern Athletic
Conference has partnered with the North Atlantic Conference in the
sports of baseball, women’s lacrosse, and men’s
and women’s tennis.