Jefferson P. Nolan
On the first day of practice for the Cal Poly women’s tennis team, jaws dropped. The team knew Louise Oxnevad could hit, but she could also play.
“She came in on the first day, and when the girls saw how she hit the ball, they all said, ‘Wow,’” head coach Damon Coupe said. “She has this humongous game. We knew she could do some special things if she continued to work hard.”
Now playing as the No. 1 starter for the Mustangs, the lefty tennis star is a winner. And she’s been winning long before she even thought about picking up a tennis racket.
A native of Queenstown, New Zealand, Oxnevad grew up hitting the ski slopes of the mountains where the well-known “Lord of the Rings” trilogy was filmed. By the time was 14, she was ranked as the No. 1 ski racer in her country.
“I started off ski racing when I was about 2,” Oxnevad said. “It was my main sport until I was about 14.”
But her mother played tennis, and one day, Oxnevad picked up a tennis racket of her own.
She was a natural.
A budding architect
After dedicating herself to tennis and competing around the world, Oxnevad wanted to attend a school that would support her dream of playing professionally. But the tennis star also wanted to pursue a second passion.
Growing up in a family of architects, designing houses was all Oxnevad ever wanted to do. She committed to Cal Poly in large part because of the school’s internationally acclaimed architecture program.
“It runs in the family,” Oxnevad said. “I just love looking through magazines and looking at the model homes.”
In her final year of high school, Oxnevad attended a graphic school and even designed a home for one of her parents’ clients.
But like most freshmen, the transition to college was somewhat of a struggle.
“I had (what turned out to be) two of my easiest classes on my first day, and I started freaking out,” Oxnevad said. “I said, ‘I don’t know how to do this.’ It was only Pre-calculus and Introduction to Environmental Design. I had a real tough first quarter; I didn’t sleep much.”
But after learning to balance tennis and her workload, Oxnevad began to see results on and off the court.
‘Give it heaps’
With each forehand and serve, she grits her teeth in pain. Oxnevad suffers from a shoulder impingement (when the bone and the nerve are too close together). But while she is playing with pain, there are more than a few of her teammates who can’t even do that.
This season, the Mustangs have seen more injuries than they thought possible.
“It’s been an absolutely freak season with injuries,” Coupe said. “In the 11 years I’ve been coaching, I’ve never had injuries like this before. Through it all, the team has just kept a great attitude. We knew our backs were up against the wall.”
But after competing in individual sports her entire life, Oxnevad has embraced the team ideology that differentiates college tennis from other levels of competition.
“Louise came in really not knowing how to be a part of a team,” said Haley Kepler, a freshman on the team. “But she’s done a really good job of figuring out how to be a part of it. She’s such a sweet, comforting person and she’s become one of my best friends.”
And when Kepler is pitted against an opponent in her match, it is not uncommon for her to hear Oxnevad yell, “Give it heaps!” from her own court in her thick Kiwi accent.
When the women’s tennis team piles in a van to embark on a road trip, Oxnevad cannot wait until a Taylor Swift song is played on the radio. It’s not that she has a passion for the singer-songwriter, she just knows her coach hates it. Naturally, she always sings at the top of her lungs.
But while Oxnevad brings a playful attitude to the team with her vocal performances and a few obscure New Zealand phrases, within the court’s lines, the women’s tennis player is unrecognizable, even to her closest teammates.
“On the court, she becomes a totally different person,” Kepler said.
But when you’re a freshman pitted against the highest ranked seed in every match you play, a transformation may be required.
“I hate losing; I take losing very hard,” Oxnevad said. “I was probably the most competitive child to the point it was almost embarrassing. I’m trying to handle that a bit better, but you can’t get pushed around out there, especially as a freshman.”
Now, the Mustangs are finished with conference play, and they are looking ahead to the Big West tournament, which commences on Thursday.
Oxnevad’s parents are making the 13-hour flight to watch their daughter compete in a Cal Poly uniform.
And for the budding architect, it’s just one more reason for her to want to win.