By Troy M. Ortiz
They are dedicated and busy — very busy. Student athletes are renowned for balancing heavy academic workloads with lofty athletic goals. They move seamlessly between the classroom and the court because of an innate appreciation for competition, despite all of the challenges.
There exists a voice only athletes can hear: the voice that drives a 21-year-old full-time student to stay late on weekdays perfecting a stroke, serve or volley.
Jessica Ruth has an unimposing and friendly presence off the tennis court. In a match though, an audience is likely to see her brows furrowed with tenacious intensity. Standing at 5’4”, the Novato, California native isn’t intimidating at first glance, but her aggressive, quick play has her ranked fourth in the Western region in singles.
Ruth lost only one singles match all season — to the region’s top-ranked player — and leads the 2008 UC Santa Cruz team, ranked 19th in the nation, in Division III play.
She’s played the game since she was eight years old, battling between the highs of success and the lows of injury while walking the tightrope of the academic and athletic line.
As a freshman at UC Irvine in 2005, Ruth injured her left shoulder before transferring to UCSC the following autumn.
Now a senior neuroscience major with a 3.2 GPA, Ruth proves she is capable of finding time for both academia and athletics. Yet she has not been aided by the sympathy of the UCSC academic staff, as is often the case at Division I universities with prominent athletic programs.
“In the spring we travel a lot because of tournaments and the fact that we’re the only DIII team in the region,” Ruth said. “But professors don’t understand the athletic program here, or the amount of time involved.”
Ultimately, students are constantly striving to stay caught up in class and on the court. On the court Ruth has the support of fellow teammate Megan Sweeney. For the past two years Sweeney and Ruth have been doubles partners, and this year they are ranked the third-best doubles team in the region.
A four-year veteran of the team, Berkeley native and senior Megan Sweeney is one of three senior players including Ruth and Chayla Furlong, all of whose leadership has proved instrumental this season. The two are now thriving in their second year as doubles partners.
“They understand where to move,” women’s tennis head coach Erin Ness said. “They read each other’s body language well and adjust quickly. When one’s off their game the other helps reignite the fire.”
Sweeney, a fourth-year sociology major and education minor, plans to give back to the community as a teacher. She will look back at her last year with fond memories.
“I’ll remember how much heart this team has,” Sweeney said, “and how much pure determination, will and heart can accomplish.”
The pair’s individual play has also greatly improved in the past year and has resulted in an even more venomous doubles team. Sweeney improved her range and last summer Ruth worked meticulously to improve her volleys.
A combination of athleticism, intensity and camaraderie has helped them to lead a young team.
“They’ve become more aggressive, they move more to the net, take more chances and are wholly more fearless than in the past,” Ness said. “They’re really good friends and their personal relationship outside of tennis is really strong.”
Outside of tennis, Ruth and Sweeney are housemates and close friends. Both players are due to graduate this spring.
“This is the end of the road,” Ruth said.
Senior Chayla Furlong noted the special quality of the current team’s roster.
“I’ll never forget how much we cared about each other,” Furlong said. “How we came out and played for each other. It’s something I don’t know I’ll ever be able to have again.”