The finality hit Paris Corley like an overhead smash.
LSU’s lone senior tennis player was a week away from being honored, a celebration that was to include her family from Grants, N.M., when the remainder of the Tigers’ season was cancelled in mid-March because of the coronavirus pandemic.
For Corley, that initially meant the end of her collegiate career as well as her treasured Senior Day.
“I was heartbroken being a senior,” Corley said. “Senior Day was coming up and my parents and grandparents were flying out. Not getting that opportunity and being told I was done with college tennis was very hard. Usually you prepare for that; that it’s your last match. And to have all those matches taken away at once was a total shock.”
LSU had nine matches remaining – all within the Southeastern Conference – with the league’s postseason tournament and NCAA regional to follow when the season ended.
The Tigers were 10-3 overall and ranked No. 12 nationally with Corley, who primarily played fourth in the team’s singles lineup and second in doubles, going 17-10 in singles and 10-9 in doubles.
Having picked up the game as a 9-year-old after being smitten by a televised match of tennis great Venus Williams, Corley tried coming to grips with the possible end of her playing career in the wake of the NCAA’s decision.
Two weeks later she was rewarded with an additional year of eligibility, giving Corley the option of coming back to an LSU team that will return intact, coupled with the arrival of three signees for the 2020-21 season.
She gladly accepted.
“There was so much speculation, so at first I was a little hesitant,” Corley said of the NCAA impending ruling on eligibility. “When he (LSU co-head coach Michael Sell) told me, I was kind of shook and didn’t know what to say.
“I didn’t hesitate a minute. I knew that I would take that year back to be with the coaches and the team. I think we have a great team. We have a lot to accomplish and I knew that I had to come back.”
Corley, on the strength of a 10-5 fall, spent that portion of the season ranked nationally at No. 105. She worked her way through five rounds of the main draw to reach the ITA Southern Regionals held at LSU, where she dropped a 6-3, 6-0 decision to teammate Taylor Bridges.
“I stayed in Baton Rouge to train last summer,” said Corley, who had a team-high 22 singles wins and tied for a team-best 26 doubles wins her junior year. “It was hard work, but it obviously paid off during the fall. Tennis is just a lot of momentum. I kind of got hot in the first half of the fall and my confidence was building. It was pretty special to get to the (ITA) final, but it’s not easy to play against your teammate.”
Corley’s spot in LSU’s singles lineup fluctuated between Nos. 3-5 with the majority of her success coming at No. 4 with a 4-3 record. She put together a 10-9 mark at the No. 2 doubles spot, teaming with either Anna Loughlan or Safiya Carrington.
“At the start of the spring, I was a little up and down,” said Corley, who was selected to the 2020 SEC’s Community Service Team. “I had trouble finding my game. As the season went along, I was getting more into a rhythm. It’s not about what (lineup) number you play, because there’s so much talent in our lineup. For me, it’s trying to contribute to the team in whatever way possible at whatever number.”
Corley grew up in an athletic family where her father Stacey was New Mexico’s Gatorade Player of the Year in football and two-time state Offensive MVP before signing with Brigham Young as a running back (1986-90).
Her older brother Cassius was a quarterback in high school before transitioning to wide receiver at New Mexico State.
Corley grew up playing soccer at the age of 3 before switching full-time to tennis after watching Williams play on television.
“After seeing her play, I thought I wanted to try that sport,” she said. “No one in my family played tennis. We went to Wal-Mart and got a racquet. We found a high school coach to kind of teach me how to play and she taught me out of a book. After that, I fell in love with it.”
Corley rose through the junior ranks where she enjoyed a decorated career that included several ITF junior singles and doubles championships. She was ranked as New Mexico’s No. 1 player and five-star recruit and signed with the University of Arizona where she spent the first two years of her career before transferring to LSU for the start of her junior season.
Corley was able to reunite with Bridges, a long-time friend and first doubles partner on the junior circuit, who had also transferred the year before from North Carolina State.
What appeared to be a far-fetched idea of ever getting the opportunity to play together in college turned into a dream come true for Corley and Bridges. Because of the NCAA’s ruling granting seniors in spring sports with an additional year of eligibility, they will conclude their careers together next season.
“We always talked about going to the same school together and that was kind of hard because she was a year younger than me,” Corley said. “When she decided to transfer and she committed first, I thought it would be amazing if I could go. I started talking to the (LSU) coaches and it just so happened that I was able to come here as well.”
The rather abrupt conclusion to the past season, one in which she was on a plane back home two days after the NCAA’s decision to halt all spring sports, has served as Corley’s motivation over the past two months.
Instead of the traditional early-morning wake-up calls for practice that were more commonplace during her adolescence, Corley has tried to adapt in today’s new normal with less time on the court to refine her game.
In addition to the workouts provided by LSU’s training staff, Corley has watched more film of her matches this past season. She’s taken advantage of the access she’s gotten to one local court and hit with her mother Patricia with one specific goal in mind.
“I’m very excited about coming back because the unique thing about our team is no one has the same personality,” Corley said. “It’s always fun and crazy times and everyone’s competitive. I’m going to bring leadership and energy. Being older than everyone, I know what it takes. I just try and push everyone.”