RCW: The Road Less Traveled to Becoming a Jayhawk
A shoulder injury changed how Despoina Vogasari (better known as “Debbie” to her teammates, coaches and friends) imagined her final year on the tennis court. Growing up in Athens, Greece, Vogasari’s plan was to play her entire collegiate career at the University of Houston, a place that had become a second home for her after spending four years there and establishing relationships that would be hard to leave. Injuries can put an unexpected spin on the course of a student-athlete’s time on campus, and for Vogasari this was something she had never planned for, but soon would rise above.
Being forced off the court for a year after tearing her shoulder, the uncertainty escalated to the point of wonder if Vogasari would ever step onto the tennis court again. If she could return, could Vogasari remotely be the same player she was before the injury?
“The biggest doubt was if I wanted to play tennis again,” Vogasari said. “Being a student-athlete isn’t easy, and especially being out for a year. I didn’t practice at all. I didn’t know if I was capable of taking a year off and being able to compete at such a high level again, so that was my biggest doubt.”
As the possibilities of her final season arose, Vogasari became more confident that she would be back on the court for one more go-round. Now, the only question was where. Vogasari decided Lawrence would be the place she could have a successful year both on and off the court. The University of Kansas is allowing her to not only continue her time as a student-athlete, but to follow her dreams off the court as she is pursuing a master’s degree in business administration.
“I always wanted to finish my tennis career if my shoulder was capable,” Vogasari said. “After taking off a year and finishing my degree and doing rehab, I was able to play tennis again. So, why not get my second degree at one of the really good programs academic wise, and one of the best programs tennis wise?”
Along with aspirations and goals for herself, Vogasari’s parents played a significant factor into whether or not she would compete during her senior year, wanting the best for her future.
“My parents were always big fans of mine, ever since I was really young,” Vogasari said. “They always loved to watch me play. They were devastated when I got injured and that I had to stop playing. We all thought that I was never going to play tennis again.
“When the opportunity presented itself, it also (allowed) them to see me go out in a good way instead of ending it with an injury. They are coming to Lawrence again in April for Senior Day. They’re excited, and they definitely played a big role in me coming back.”
Putting on a different school’s uniform was hard to imagine at first, as the thought of playing for another program had never crossed Vogasari’s mind.
“Going in as a freshman, I never would have never thought that I would be playing for another school ever, that’s not something that you think about,” Vogasari explained. “I absolutely loved my school, I loved my teammates and I loved playing for the University of Houston, so I never thought I’d be playing for someone else.”
While the possibilities were spread wide, Kansas head coach Todd Chapman played a large role in making Vogasari feel confident that KU was the right place to spend her final year of eligibility.
“I’ve known Todd for quite some time,” Vogasari explained. “I met him my freshman year, so I knew about the program and I knew about him. I have a great deal of respect for Todd.”
Chapman and assistant coach Caroline Lilley were persistent in making sure Vogasari would play for Kansas, and would do anything they could to make sure she became a part of the Jayhawk family. The coaches soon formed a relationship with Vogasari that has been influential and valuable to Vogasari both as a player and a person during her time at KU.
“They were very eager when the news came out that I could play tennis again,” Vogasari said. “I was contacted by a lot of schools, but Todd and Caroline were the most eager. They flew down immediately to Houston to come meet me. I was very impressed by their professionalism. You don’t see that a lot. Especially since I’ve had four years, I kind of know what tennis and college athletics are about. I saw that they were very serious about their program, they were very professional, and I knew I would be in good hands.”
Chapman knew of the successes Vogasari had already had in her collegiate career at Houston, playing in the line-up for the three years she had competed. He saw the potential and impact she could have on the Jayhawk team for the coming season, bringing experience and qualities that Kansas would benefit from.
“Obviously, Debbie came in with a lot of quality experience playing three years at the top position at Houston,” Chapman said. “Making the NCAA Tournament in singles, and the situations that she has been in before coming to Kansas – adding that is invaluable.”
For Vogasari, coming to Kansas also meant leaving Houston, a place she had called home for four years, a place she was ultimately not yet ready to leave.
“I think the biggest thing for me was leaving Houston,” Vogasari said. “I spent four years there, I loved it so much. In the beginning, I was homesick. Even though my home is in Greece, I spent so much time in Houston that I consider it my second home, so that was hard. It was hard going from somewhere I felt very comfortable to somewhere that I really don’t know anyone, and I had to start over again.”
A new program, a new school and a new state. Everything was different for Vogasari, but she took the changes in stride and persevered.
“In the beginning it was a struggle, it’s always a struggle when there’s such a big change,” Vogasari said. “Going to a different program is a lot different; the coaches look for different things, it’s different how they run things and you have to adapt. So, in the beginning it was a struggle but I definitely adapted a lot faster than I thought I would.”
The trials that came with taking a year off from tennis due to injury caused Vogasari to be stretched out of her comfort zone in order to play and compete at a level where she was satisfied. At Kansas, this meant working hard in a way she had never experienced. Chapman and Lilley had expectations for not only Vogasari, but the Jayhawk tennis team as a whole – to become a nationally recognized program.
“I definitely had to adapt to the expectations here,” Vogasari said. “At Houston, the expectations were not as high. Tennis was not as serious as it is here. We were student-athletes and we competed, we trained and we were actually really good, but the emphasis was not as big on tennis as it is here. When I came here I had to prioritize better. That was an adjustment I had to make. Everything I do, I have to think of my tennis career.”
Chapman was more than pleased with the transition Vogasari made when coming to Kansas in early summer 2017. He quickly saw her ability to easily adapt to a new program and how dedicated she was to meet the expectations that Kansas had set.
“She’s worked extremely hard to get herself in shape,” Chapman said. “She knew coming in we were going to make her uncomfortable on a daily basis and really push her to get fit and to exceed the limits she had for herself, and she has embraced that well. You never know how that’s going to work, especially for a player who has been somewhere and been successful, and has played for two other coaches. Every coach does things differently and every program runs things differently. You never know how that dynamic is going to fully work until they’re in your program and doing it on a daily basis.”
Immediately after coming to Kansas, Vogasari knew the focus and hard work she would have to be driven by to return to her full potential as a tennis player. Her goals were steadfast as she strived to get back to, and move past, the player she once was prior to injury. With all of the time she missed recovering from her injury came hours, days and months spent on the court to get her to the point where she wanted to be and was satisfied. The time she dedicated did not go unnoticed. The progress she has made through grit and motivation has driven her to a place where she once was unsure that she could ever return to.
“She decided to come (to Lawrence) at the end of May last year and work all summer,” said Chapman. “She worked hard this fall to get to the point to where she ended her third year of play at Houston. It took her six months to get back close to the form she was at, and now I feel like she’s at the point where she has a great solid foundation to really exceed what she’s done in her past.”
The work has paid off as Vogasari finished the fall 2017 season with an 11-5 record and earned an automatic bid to the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) Fall Nationals after advancing to the singles final of the ITA Central Regional. All of that also resulted in a No. 94 national ranking to start the spring 2018 season. Vogasari’s level of play isn’t the only thing that has changed in her short time at Kansas. With newfound relationships among teammates and coaches, she credits her comeback on the court to those around her – the people who have made it possible for her to be where she is today.
“I didn’t think I would have such a good relationship with the girls and the coaches as I have now,” Vogasari said. “They are absolutely great. I never expected I would be able to play at the level that I’m playing at again, and it’s thanks to Caroline and Todd, 100 percent. I have a great relationship with the team and I love the coaches. In college athletics, a big part of it is your coaches, so if I enjoy playing for my coaches, then I enjoy playing for KU. I do very much enjoy being a Jayhawk.”
Not only have Vogasari’s skills benefited the team, but her personality brings a spark amongst them that the Jayhawks needed. She is a leader in ways that go far beyond swinging a racket.
“Debbie’s personality is very outgoing, she is someone who has brought good energy to the team,” Chapman explained. “She’s interested in the team all getting along, she’s interested in people voicing their opinions and she’s interested in people speaking up if something is bothering them. She’s one that is very good in those areas. She’s not one we ever have to worry (about) or wonder what she’s thinking. She’s very open and upfront and honest, and I think that has been a nice addition.
“I think the biggest addition is that she is extremely positive with all of her teammates, very encouraging to each of them, always looking to build them up and make them feel good about themselves and their abilities. I think from that side of things, that’s where I’ve seen the biggest addition of her to our team is that she’s very vocal in that way.”
Insisting on an outcome that would lead her to the greatest success, Vogasari has taken the trials of the adjustments and changes to become a stronger person and player, while also growing in all aspects of life.
“It’s made me a lot stronger,” Vogasari said. “Leaving Houston, I didn’t think I would be able to call Lawrence my home, but it’s been a short seven months and I’ve really enjoyed my time here. I’ve built strong relationships with my teammates and coaches. I definitely think I’ve grown. I’ve matured a lot because I’m also working on my second degree. I’m the oldest on the team, so the girls look up to me. It’s definitely helped me grow in all areas.”
Coming into a program after spending multiple years elsewhere is not easy, but Vogasari is assured that she is exactly where she should be. Through being pushed to her limit and growing to become the player not only she, but Chapman, has expected to her to be, she has been a hard-working, dedicated addition to the team.
“We were just laughing yesterday,” Chapman smiled. “We were really pushing her and the team in some fitness stuff, and the mindset was that she wanted to give in on herself a little bit and not think she could complete something and then she rose up to the occasion and she did. We were joking afterward because I had just gotten a Facebook notification that a year ago she committed to come play here, and it was the picture of her signing. Joking with her I said, ‘Are you sure this is what you wanted?’ and she said, ‘That and more…except for the third set of running yesterday. I wished I was somewhere else (then).'”
The strength that Vogasari has gained back comes with setbacks, questions of capability and a tittering mentality to get through the hard days. Chapman continues to challenge Vogasari to get past the limitations she, like any college student-athlete, can set on herself.
“There are times where she doubts herself a little bit,” Chapman said. “I think that’s what we’re trying to – from her fitness levels and her mindset – take away those situations where she has doubt of how good she can be, or what she still has the opportunity to accomplish in the next four months. As long as we push her, and try to get the maximum out of her, for herself and for this team in the next four months, then we will have exceeded everything we had hoped for.”
Looking forward, these are the last four months of Vogasari’s final year of collegiate tennis eligibility. Four months to prove to herself that she can do what she once thought she could never accomplish. Four months to exceed the levels she has met in the past.
“She is really committed,” Chapman said. “The exciting part is she has four months to finish her career strong, and I think she is at the commitment level where she really wants to do that. When she got here, there was a hope and a wish she could get back to the point of playing good tennis at a level she was pleased with. I think she’s at that point now. Now is her opportunity to exceed even what she has done in the past, which she has had a great college career up until this point.”
Vogasari is confident in her team moving ahead in the season, as the Kansas squad stands out to her more than any other program that she had been a part of before. Being a part of the team means a season with great potential and limitless possibilities that she looks forward to, making her journey to being a Jayhawk worth it.
“I’m very excited for this season at KU,” Vogasari smiled. “I’ve never seen a more motivated group of individuals. I think this team has everything. We have a lot of talent. We all have great relationships with each other. We all have a lot of respect for our coaches, so it’s very easy to play for them. We’re all very competitive, so I’m excited to be on a team that has everything and that has so much potential. At Kansas, I’ve seen how the girls and I have competed, and it looks like it’s going to be a really good year for us.”
As Vogasari has hopes for herself and the team with the spring season ahead, so does Chapman. Fitting in well with the Kansas lineup, he has no doubt about the accomplishments Vogasari is capable of achieving. With a combination of her experience, talent, determination and teamwork, the future is bright for Vogasari and the Jayhawks this season.
“She has the opportunity to be a leader on the court in singles and doubles play,” Chapman said. “She’s going to play very high in our singles lineup. I think her goal is to make the NCAA Tournament in singles and I think she has the ability to do that. She has played with a couple (of) different partners in our doubles lineup, and whoever she plays with, I know she will be a great teammate and a great partner in that.
“I think the goal for her, and the rest of the group, is to exceed the limits of what has been done here in the past with Kansas tennis. We have a group that has a chance of (having) a really special season and a big piece of that is her (Debbie). As good as she is, and as talented as she is, if she sets her mind to something, she is one that is going to do it.”
Coming to a place that once was unimaginable and caused great uncertainty in her life, Vogasari is now comfortable in Lawrence, at the University of Kansas, and is focused on making her final collegiate tennis season the finest of her career.
“It’s my last season, so I want it to be the best one yet,” Vogasari said. “I would like to surpass my highest ranking, which was my sophomore or junior year (ranking at 21 in singles). As a team, obviously the conference title is something we all look forward to. I would like it to be the year that I am proudest of.”
The possibility of the spring of 2018 being her most outstanding season yet is encouraging for Vogasari and her Kansas teammates as she closes out her time on the court wearing Crimson and Blue stronger than she’s ever been before.