Twins Ireland and Sophia Amato Got their First Taste of College Tennis at Saint Joseph’s University
By STEVE GALLUZZO | Sports Editor
Despite their freshman season being cut short because of the coronavirus, Ireland and Sophia Amato got a taste of what college tennis is like and they want more.
The identical twin sisters weren’t merely teammates on the women’s squad at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, they were also roommates… and they discovered the true meaning of cooperation and compromise.
“The biggest transition from high school to college was living alone without your family and having to make new friends and connections that’ll make you feel at home,” Ireland says.
Adds Sophia: “For me it was realizing the amount of independence you’re gaining and learning how to manage your life without parents always by your side.”
Saint Joseph’s was 1-6 when the season was canceled in mid-March. The Amatos were two of four freshmen on a team with only one senior—rare for a Division I program playing in the Atlantic 10 Conference.
“Life [at St. Joe’s] is exciting and new,” Ireland says. “I didn’t mind the dorms because it allowed me to meet new people. Living in a dorm is very different from living at home because things aren’t as private and you have to get used to swiping into every door and dealing with people and how different they may act from you.”
Sophia adds that rooming with her sister made things easier: “The people are extremely nice, which made it easy to make friends! I loved my dorm, it was in the center of campus around most of the action . The girls on my floor were very friendly, making it an easy transition. Living with my sister the first year made it a comforting environment.”
The Amatos played for three years at Palisades High and went through a somewhat similar experience upon moving to Southern California from the East Coast. They helped the Dolphins win the City Section title as ninth graders, then spent their sophomore year back in their hometown in Pennsylvania, leading the Easton High tennis team to its first District title and third in the state tournament.
Returning to Pali High as juniors and living in the Highlands, they were part of two more City championship teams before signing with Saint Joseph’s in February of last year. Since then, they have never looked back.
“It took a few weeks to adjust to the new environment at SJU,” says Ireland, who is three minutes older than her sibling. “It was difficult at first because the only person I knew at SJU was my sister but the team quickly made me feel welcomed and straight at home. My practice and routine schedule was pretty packed during the season. We had to end all classes no later than 12 and mostly practiced inside which was definitely different from playing outside in sunny California. We even had very late matches and had to wake up the next day extremely early to take a bus to our next destination to play another match.”
Adds Sophia: “Honestly it didn’t take much time for me. It felt so natural and welcoming, like I was meant to be there and I’m very happy with my decision. We had practice Monday-Friday and occasionally Saturdays for about two hours. On Tuesdays and Thursdays straight after practice we had cardio and weight training, which really impacted my game in a positive way. Because practice was in the afternoon I took all my classes in the morning which meant long days, but well worth it!”
Sophia’s biggest thrill came when she came from a set down in singles to notch the decisive point in the Hawks’ 4-3 triumph over Lafayette on February 22—their only victory of the season.
“We started off the match strong with my sister and I clinching the doubles point in a tight set,” Sophia recalls. “From there we went to singles and I was the last to go on. The overall score was tied at 3-3, which meant I was the deciding point. I lost the first set and came back to win the next two and clinch the match! My coach was on the sidelines giving me advice and something memorable he said to me after I lost the first set was ‘Sophia, do you want to be a chicken or a hawk?’ My teammates were very supportive and it was a great moment. I definitely say college tennis is harder than high school because you’re up against more experienced players, many of them older than you, at a step higher than high school. It takes time to adjust to college.”
Ireland adds: “The experience that stood out to me the most was clinching the doubles point against Lafayette because the whole team was watching and it was an exciting moment. It’s much harder than high school in the sense that every match is competitive.”
Sophia remembers the empty feeling after hearing the season was done: “We were on our spring break trip with both the men’s and women’s teams. It started off in Pittsburgh and then we went to North Carolina for a match against Davidson where we heard our season could possibly be canceled. We were forced to have our Senior Day for our captain which was very emotional and our coach told us to play as if our season wasn’t going to be canceled. Sadly, after the match we were back on the bus when we got the news.”
Ireland also took it hard: “The entire team was devastated because of all the hard work we put in during the fall to prepare us for the season. We had a 9-10 hour bus ride back to Philadelphia to process what had happened.”
Both Amatos enjoy the Division I college format comprised of three doubles matches (each one set with no-ad scoring) followed by six singles matches. Ireland switched between No. 3 and No. 4 singles; Sophia between No. 5 and No. 6. The pair switched between No. 2 and No. 3 in doubles.
“The no-ad has helped me and hurt me,” Sophia says. “College doubles goes so quick. With only one set you don’t have much room for error or a slow start. I’ve learned to deal with my nerves on the court. Something I especially like with college tennis is the on-court coaching. It can really make a difference, calming your mind and knowing someone’s there.”
Ireland agrees: “Starting the match with doubles is a great way to shake the nerves and get focused. It’s a confidence booster heading into singles with the doubles point on your side. The level of play is very tough and pushes you to play harder because everyone’s just as consistent as you.”
Sophia believes the college experience has strengthened their relationship even more.
“Since we play doubles with each other at such a high level we’ve gone through the highs and lows together,” she says.
Ireland can remember all too well dropping her last match in a Dolphins uniform in the City Individual singles final after rallying to beat her sister the round before in their first meeting since 10th grade when they faced each other in the District semifinals in Pennsylvania, That time, Ireland prevailing in a third-set tiebreaker.
As for Sophia, she won the Sportsmanship Award for her exemplary behavior on and off the court in the 2018 City Individual tournament. The sisters played No. 1 and No. 2 singles as seniors and have fond memories of their days in the blue and white.
“I miss the Palisades a lot,” says Ireland, who like her sister is majoring in undecided business. “California will always feel like home to me. The last time I was back was during Winter Break. I’ve kept in touch with some of my teammates here and there but I’ll definitely reach out to them when I return.”
Adds Sophia: “I too miss the Palisades and its small town atmosphere! I got to train there before my actual season started, which helped prepare me for some tough matches I had in the spring.”
Both sisters are grateful for their time at Palisades and think it prepared them well for college academically and athletically.
“The first semester was challenging at first juggling academics and athletics, although SJU really goes out of its way to help student athletes succeed,” Sophia says. “We had athletic study hall hours with tutors for any subjects we were struggling with. You really learn how to manage your time as a student -athlete and I didn’t take my free time for granted.”
Ireland and Sophia also both liked playing for SJU head coach Ian Crookenden.
“He’s a very knowledgeable and wise man because of his past experiences as Arthur Ash’s doubles partner at UCLA and making it to the semifinals in doubles at Wimbledon,” Ireland says. “Coach [Bud] Kling at Palisades and Coach Crookenden are very similar in that they both understand the game insanely well and give great advice whether it’s on strategy, court position, technique or mentality. They’re both intelligent and caring coaches that are a pleasure to work with.”
Sophia eagerly chimes in: “Coach Crookenden has played tennis at the highest level and just like Coach Kling he’s extremely knowledgeable in doubles.”
Both sisters are optimistic that the team will be even better next season.
“SJU has good chances to improve and play even better next year because as a younger team we four freshmen have gotten a little taste of competing as a team and are looking to improve our results,” Ireland says. “We’re all preparing our skills individually based upon what Coach Crookenden believes we can improve on during this time. We’re working on and off the court every day.”
Asked to give advice for girls transitioning from prep to college tennis, both had practical tips.
“You may feel out of your comfort zone at first but you’ll meet plenty of new friends,” Ireland says. “You have a lot on your plate and lots of places to be. I’d recommend a lighter course schedule your first semester to get used to college work because the first semester is always hardest.”
Adds Sophia: “Don’t worry what spot you play in the lineup. Most important, practice hard and develop a team rather than an individual mindset. Even if you lose your match make sure to root on your teammates because you can still win the match overall!”