ECU’s Betsy Zurawel: Pirates’ Small-School Find

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(Photo: Betsy Zurawel. Courtesy East Carolina University Athletic Communication Department.)

  • Name: Betsy Zurawel
  • Age: 23
  • Organization: North Raleigh Christian Academy, East Carolina University

Across the U.S. high school tennis landscape, if you look hard enough, you’ll see the entire gamut of possibilities. Some high school teams are loaded with several Division I players. Other schools have to turn over nearly every stone simply to find enough players to field a team. One incident in my childhood featured a high school so small it couldn’t fill a team, but one student who practiced for hours against his garage door, still participated in the state sectional meet.

For Raleigh’s Betsy Zurawel, her high school experience falls somewhere toward the unincorporated, do-it-yourself method that you’re more likely to see on HGTV than on tennis courts in Raleigh.

Zurawel grew up playing against her older brother, attending clinics and taking lessons. She started young.

“I played first tournament when I was ten,” Zurawel said. “Up until my senior year in high school, tennis was pretty much all I did.”

Her high school background echoes like mine did growing up in central Illinois. Small school. Tiny program. Few drills. Coaches were more chauffeurs than strategizing partners.

In some schools across the country, that’s just the way it is.

But every once in a while, a school like North Raleigh Academy welcomes a once-in-a-generation type player.

A player like Zurawel.

“My high school team wasn’t great,” Zurawel said. “Practices weren’t great, but I played #1 my freshman year and enjoyed it a lot.”

After one year, Zurawel, the daughter or a Harvard-educated dentist, realized that she needed more practical tennis mentoring.

“I didn’t play in high school both my sophomore year and senior year,” she said. “I’m not trying to make my high school tennis sound bad. It was really fun. Playing #1 as a freshman, I got to play a lot of players I wouldn’t ordinarily have played in tournaments.”

“But I was trying to focus on playing with my coaches and improving my game.”

Did it ever.

“I had always been serious about tennis, especiall how to pick up the suitable kids tennis rackets, but those periods  with my coaches  helped to raise my game”, Zurawel said.

“My coach, Christian Welte, influenced me the most as far as tennis goes, especially in high school. He helped me come to the decision that I really wanted to play in college, and he helped me understand the sacrifices that I would have to make.”

Suddenly, Zurawel’s name became a staple in the North Carolina junior state rankings, breaking into the Top 20.

“I traveled with my older brother to a lot of southern tournaments starting when I was 13,” Zurawel said.

In time, Zurawel’s name was established as one of the top juniors across the Tar Heel state.

After playing her final high school match as a junior, and then graduating from North Raleigh Christian the following year, Zurawel remained hungry to play at the next level.

“I knew I wanted to play tennis in college, but I wasn’t quite sure where I wanted to go,” she said. “I came to East Carolina last September to visit and liked it, but still wasn’t sure. I wasn’t sure where I saw myself.”

A few months later, Pirates head coach Tom Morris offered me a walk-on spot.

Zurawel took it.

“When I finally got here, that’s when I really started to like it,” Zurawel said. “I’m 1 ½ hours from home and my family is really important to me.”

ECU Connection

As Zurawel begins her ECU career at #6/7 singles for the Pirates, she has the opportunity this season to ride side by side with a former rival-turned-mentor.

“I played Melis (Tanik) in high school,” Zurawel said about her ECU-captain and teammate. “We were not the best of friends. It’s funny. Now, she’s a great person I look up to.