TAMPA — In her native Moldova, when Ecaterina Vasenina decided her tennis skills could land her a college scholarship in the United States, her search for that new home began with her mother's obsession with all things Florida.
"She thought it was such an amazing, pretty state," said Vasenina, whose mother had never been to Florida. "Florida just sounds like a cool place to be."
Vasenina did a Google search for "Florida universities," found USF ("Everything was green") and emailed Bulls coach Agustin Moreno. He did online research and found Vasenina had an impressive junior career. A scholarship was offered and accepted, a sight-unseen transaction on both ends.
Four years later, Vasenina — "Katie" to friends — is wrapping up her USF career as the Bulls host Notre Dame in today's Big East championship final. To her, Florida is everything she read it was, and her English has improved tremendously, as has her tennis.
In Moldova (in Eastern Europe), nearly all the courts were clay — for which she credits her drop shot — and the lack of indoor courts kept her from practicing during colder months. As a result, Vasenina, 20, trained one winter in Spain, another in Australia. Those experiences prepared her for USF's international roster, which includes players from the United States, New Zealand, Spain, France and Venezuela.
Perhaps the best transition in her game has been her taking a largely individual sport and incorporating a team aspect.
"At first, it was really unusual for me. I didn't know how to cheer," said Vasenina, in her second year as the Bulls' No. 1 singles player. "It was strange. If my match was the last one, the whole team would go and cheer for me. Before, even when you were training with your friends, they didn't want you to win because it's an individual sport. It totally changed the selfish attitude that I had."
USF and Notre Dame have quite the rivalry. Today is the sixth time in eight years they meet for the Big East title, the Bulls winning only in 2007.
"It'll be tough, and they know we'll be tough," Moreno said. "We have a great respect for each other. It's a great setup for us here in the last year of the Big East."
The schools met a week ago on the USF courts. And though Notre Dame won 5-2, four of the six singles matches went to a third set. Vasenina was up 3-1 in the third set and serving at 40-15 before Britney Sanders rallied to win 6-3.
"We were so close," said Vasenina, who is working on a master's degree in global sustainability. "We're so excited (about today's match). We can't wait."
USF moves into the new American Athletic Conference this summer, and Vasenina is likely to stay with the team as a graduate assistant. The thought of a team championship at the end of her career is a dream for this individual.
"It's huge. I have goose bumps when I say it right now," she said. "It's going to be insane."