This week, ESPN.com is featuring a few of the best non-NCAA-sanctioned programs in the country.
When coaches take a new job, they often speak of changing a "losing culture." This process generally involves taking a historically inept program and turning it into a winner. The challenge facing Jasna Reed and Keith Evans, however, is far more formidable.
The co-coaches of the table tennis team at Texas Wesleyan University, in Fort Worth, are attempting to change the predominant perceptions of a pigskin-crazy populace. That battle begins with revising the moniker most commonly associated with the sport.
"What they refer to as pingpong in the U.S is what people play in their basements," says Reed, a player-coach for the Rams who is from Croatia. "Those people play in their basements for fun. They play with nonprofessional rackets, so it is more like just a game. Table tennis refers to the real sport, an Olympic sport that is very competitive. It is very popular in the [rest of the] world, but not in the U.S."
To Texans, collegiate titles are a birthright. After all, the state is home to the Texas Longhorns -- winners of 47 NCAA championship banners. Still, the dominance the Rams have displayed on the 9-foot by 5-foot table on which small-scale tennis is played is almost unparalleled.
Since the program's inception in 2001, Texas Wesleyan's table tennis team has won at least two event titles in the ACUI/NCTTA National Collegiate Table Tennis Championships and 28 of a possible 36 event titles in the past six years. This past spring in Columbus, Ohio, the Rams swept the championship event by winning all seven event titles -- coed team, women's team, women's singles, men's singles, women's doubles, men's doubles and mixed doubles.
"To be able to keep going back and [winning titles], it's an incredible run," says Texas Wesleyan athletic director Kevin Millikan. "Every year, people are gunning for them. The expectations for them are so high and there is a lot of pressure on them. If they don't win, it's a disappointment."
When Texas Wesleyan's administration decided to start a table tennis team in 2001, it didn't envision creating a juggernaut that would serve its way to sports superiority. The idea, in fact, was met with a fair share of skepticism.
There is lot of physical training and exercises that you need to be in shape to be good. It is not like you are holding a beer in one hand and a racket in the other -- that is
"You'd love to say that a lot of people thought it was a great idea, but it wasn't true," Millikan says.
"It's hard to explain, we didn't necessarily see this coming. It was one of those things that we said we know we are going to field a team and there are places for them to play. And maybe people will pay attention to us because we are doing it."
Since table tennis is not an NCAA-sanctioned sport, Wesleyan offers many potential recruits full or partial scholarships. The academic opportunities have lured myriad skilled servers to Fort Worth.
Mark Hazinski, the third-ranked player in the U.S., spent three years playing professionally in Europe before joining the team this fall.
"I really haven't lived in [the U.S.] much the last four years," said Hazinski, a native of Mishawaka, Ind. "To be able to go to school in the U.S. and be on a scholarship while still be able to train was huge for me."
When the table tennis team made its debut, it didn't necessarily look primed for a dynastic run. Sure, that first team had extremely proficient players, but not enough of them.
When practices began in fall 2001, the Rams' roster consisted of three players -- Reed, Razvan Cretu and Idan Levi, all of whom had competed at the national or international level.
"We really felt like we had the right idea," Millikan says. "Those first couple players were very good players. Jasna was the very first player to be signed. We thought that if we got the right people interested, from there word of mouth would spread. We ran into a few bumps along the way, but now it is rolling right along."
It seemed fitting that Wesleyan's coach at that time, Christian Lillieroos, who previously had led international programs in Sweden and Mexico, would recruit Reed. After all, she was living near the campus and was interested in pursuing a graduate degree at Wesleyan. More significantly, she possessed the pedigree and résumé of a table tennis superstar.
Reed was once a prodigious paddle handler in the former Yugoslavia. She spent her youth training and competing at a high level. In 1988, at the age of 21, Reed won the bronze medal in the women's doubles event at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
Then, as Reed says, "things just broke up into little pieces."
In the early 1990s, Yugoslavia erupted in civil war. Four years after Reed triumphed for self and country, her medal, which she had given to her grandmother, was stolen when armed Serbian troops raided her home in Foca, Bosnia-Herzegovina. The violence in the region left Reed, who was born in Bosnia and spent time living in Croatia, disenchanted.
"It would be like if all of the United States was divided into 50 [separate nations]," she says. "I didn't feel like I belonged to any of these composed countries. I liked my country the way it was before."
She left Europe for the U.S. in 1994 and became an American citizen in 1999. Reed says that difficult time has helped put things in perspective.
"I feel like I had my life in [table tennis] before," said Reed, a member of the 2000 and 2004 U.S. Olympic teams. "Now when I play, I enjoy it. It doesn't feel like work anymore. Now it is actually fun."
By spring 2002, thanks to diligent recruiting efforts by Lillieroos and his players, the Rams' roster was replete with a vast array of volleyers.
With that newfound depth, Wesleyan proved it was a force even top collegiate racketeers were unable to reckon with. The Rams won five event titles at the 2002 NCTTA Tournament.
"I can't say enough about what Jasna and Keith do for the team," Millikan says. "Those guys bring a lot of credibility to the program. People in the table tennis world know them. And they see that we have some great players and we are a great team, and they want to be a part of that."
Although this year's sweep at the NCTTA could elevate the program to new heights competitively, the university has even bigger plans for its involvement with the sport. According to Millikan, Wesleyan is hoping to become a national training center for table tennis. This, he says, would allow the school to build a facility designed exclusively for table tennis. That structure would be used by Wesleyan's team as well as by those involved in the training program.
Reed, who left the program shortly after its first NCTTA Tournament and returned as player-coach in 2006, would like to focus on making table tennis more of a mainstream sport in the States.
"Everyone, when they see table tennis, they love it," Reed says. "It is not that they aren't interested, it is just that they haven't seen it enough."
To get students at Wesleyan involved, the Rams have created a junior varsity team for players of all levels. The school also has started hosting several open tournaments throughout the year. Those events have had as many as 1,000 participants.
Reed says encouraging participation will open the eyes of anyone who thinks table tennis is just a game and not a sport.
"It is actually a good workout," she says. "There is lot of physical training and exercises that you need to be in shape to be good. It is not like you are holding a beer in one hand and a racket in the other -- that is pingpong."
Brendan Murphy is an assistant editor at ESPN.com. He can be reached at Brendan.R.Murphy@espn3.com.