Aeriel Ellis considers herself a northern California girl through and through. A few years back, if you had asked the Hayward native if she would ever consider leaving her home state, she would have scoffed at the question.
Luckily for The University of Texas, Ellis’ Hayward High School tennis coach convinced her to leave California, just for a few days, to take a visit to the Forty Acres.
“I didn’t want to leave California,” admitted Ellis. “I came and in those two days, I was like ‘For sure, Texas! It doesn’t really get much better.”
It didn’t hurt that Ellis found a mentor in head coach Patty Fendick-McCain, who like Ellis is short in stature but fierce in attitude, and sports a unique one-handed backhand that is hard for opponents to overcome.
“Patty is from ‘NorCal’ like me,” Ellis said. “She’s short. She played with a one-handed backhand. That plays so much into why I wanted to play here and be coached by her, because not many people have one handed-backhands and are my height.”
Once Ellis arrived on the Forty Acres back in 2009, she had a seamless transition to college tennis. As a freshman, Ellis played No. 1 singles, finishing her rookie season with a 32-14 overall singles record and helping her team to a 19-6 dual-match record and a trip to the round of 16 at the NCAA Championships.
“I didn’t really have any expectations coming in,” Ellis said. “I just wanted to contribute. Wherever I was in the lineup, I wanted to be a solid person on the team. I remember my first dual match and Patty said, ‘You’re going to play No. 1.’ I thought, ‘What is going on here?’ but Patty had a lot of faith in me.”
In honor of her rookie year success, the Big 12 Conference named Ellis as the league’s Freshman of the Year, and the ITA Texas Region tabbed her with Rookie Player of the Year honors. Ellis competed in all three national championship events on the college tennis calendar that season – the ITA All-American Championships, the ITA National Intercollegiate Indoor Championships and the NCAA Championships.
Her sophomore year also treated Ellis well. She posted a 27-13 overall singles record, earned a second-consecutive trip to the NCAA individual tournament and became the first All-American for Texas women’s tennis since 1999.
“Becoming an All-American was awesome,” Ellis recalled. “We were playing at Stanford, and that area is home for me. I grinded for three sets, and I remember winning and just dropping the racket, shaking the girl’s hand, and then running over to my parents to celebrate.”
Ellis was poised for continued success heading into her junior season after reaching the semifinals of the 2011 USTA/ITA Division I Texas Regional Championships as part of a successful fall campaign. Unfortunately, the junior widely looked at as the constant leader and heartbeat of the team lost her mother to cancer in late March, a few weeks into the 2012 spring season.
After spending some time back home with her family in California, Ellis was tasked with the decision of whether she would take a leave of absence from school and tennis, or return to finish out the season with her teammates.
“At first I didn’t want to come back,” Ellis said. “But, my parents really wanted me to come back. They didn’t want me to put my life on hold. I had asked my mom, ‘Would you be upset if I stayed here (in California)?’ She said, ‘Yeah. You need to go back and continue with school and tennis.’ So I think that was the one push that made me come back that season.“
Ellis credits her coaches and teammates with making the return as easy as possible.
“It was definitely hard coming back. I had to learn how to play tennis again. I had to lean on people and use a couple of shoulders to cry on, obviously. But, my teammates were so supportive and so positive about the whole process, because it was really tough coming back. It’s almost hard to talk about it. I don’t miss that part of my life.”
While she questioned her decision at the time and for some duration after, Ellis is at peace with her decision to return and believes it helped her with the grieving process.
“To have to deal with what I had to deal with, it’s kind of weird looking back on it. Sometimes I still wonder why I did come back. But it’s such a family-and-team mentality here. I just couldn’t see myself leaving my team, and we had such an amazing opportunity last year. I definitely think coming back was a good decision.”
Through it all, Ellis stayed on top of her schoolwork and worked harder than ever through the remainder of her junior year to remain a successful student and athlete. She even qualified for her third consecutive NCAA individual tournament and was named an All-American, becoming only the second Longhorn to earn back-to-back ITA singles All-America honors since 1999.
At the end of the season, Ellis was recognized with the ITA Texas Region and then national Cissie Leary Award for Sportsmanship. The annual award is given to an upperclassman who has demonstrated extraordinary commitment and unwavering dedication to her team, and brings exceptional hard work, courage, sportsmanship and a positive, cooperative attitude that makes people around her play better.
“This award goes to someone of great character who excels on the tennis court and has overcome adversity,” Fendick-McCain said. “Aeriel is an inspiration to all of us given what she has been through, personally. As a coach, it was gratifying to see her recognized because she was so deserving.”
Ellis was the first Longhorn to win the national award in its 15-year history. The award is named in memory of the late Cissie Leary, a former women’s tennis coach at The University of Pennsylvania.
“So funny, I didn’t even know I was nominated or anything, and then Patty was telling me about it and how Cissie Leary was this incredible person,” Ellis said. “I was flattered. You don’t know what anybody has been through. I doubt most people know what I’ve been through. It was an honor to be the regional winner and then the national winner.”
This season as a senior, Ellis executed another successful campaign, featuring two ITA top-20 wins, including a come-from-behind three-set win over Georgia’s ninth-ranked Lauren Herring.
Ellis posted an 18-6 dual-match singles record this spring season including eight ITA top-100 wins. More impressively, the senior finished Big 12 regular and postseason play with an unblemished 11-0 record, earning All-Big 12 singles honors. Ellis is one of only two Longhorns to ever earn four All-Big 12 singles honors.
On senior day in April, with her father on site to celebrate his daughter’s achievements at Texas, Ellis earned her 100th career win with a straight-sets victory over Boston University’s Lauren Davis.
Ellis enters the 2013 NCAA Championship individual tournament this week as a two-time All-American with an impressive 106-55 (.658) career singles record. She will finish her time at Texas having qualified for 11 of 12 NCAA national championship events contested throughout her collegiate career.
The remarkable young lady has gained the respect of her teammates, coaches and opponents on and off the court, and will go down in Longhorns history as one of the most complete women’s tennis players and teammates to grace the Forty Acres.
“Aeriel always puts her teammates first,” Fendick-McCain said. “She is a humble leader who sets an example every single day with her actions, and that has strengthened the core of our team. Aeriel helped to create a winning culture on our team through her leadership, unselfish attitude and her knack for putting everybody else first.”
“Aeriel’s our team leader and our captain, and she really exudes confidence,” added freshman Breaunna Addison. “She behaves the way a captain should, and she paves the way with hard work. She is an inspiration to us.”
Ellis will finish her degree next year and plans to attend pharmacy school immediately after to pursue her dream of finding a cure for cancer. While the California girl loves her home state, her time in Austin has left her a Texan as well.
“I really want to stay here,” Ellis concluded. “I wouldn’t mind living here for the rest of my life. It’s so nice here. There are so many cities. The only thing that’s different from here and California is that Cali has more beaches and it’s not as hot. But other than that, it’s pretty amazing here.”