Cover, Sports, Tennis

Tennis is more than just wins and losses for Piric

It was the difference between life and death.

At 15-years-old, Aljosa Piric left everything he knew behind. He didn’t have a choice.

His home country of Bosnia and Herzegovina was amidst one of the deadliest wars in European history. The fighting would last for more than three years and took the lives of an estimated 100,000 people.

Most Bosnians could not leave.

However, Piric, a young tennis star, had his escape ticket. The Olympic Committee was funneling promising athletes out.

He left his family behind in Sept. 1992 with only a couple of tennis rackets and a few sets of clothes.

“I went through a tough stage there when I moved away from home,” Piric said. “I went through different countries. It was tough. I didn’t speak any English. Coming into a different country not speaking the language, just really trying to prove yourself in the tennis world. Knowing this is the one thing that I can do, it was difficult, but a very life-defining opportunity.”

The Olympic Committee sent Piric and other talented players to a tennis camp in Croatia. But shortly after, Piric was on the move again once money ran low. They were moved to a refugee camp in Croatia before making their way to Italy.

Finally, he would make it to the United States. They were sent to a tennis academy in Tampa, Florida. However, funds quickly ran out again. Piric moved in with a host family in Richmond, Virginia.

More than 4,500 miles away from Bosnia, in a completely different environment, Piric had trouble adjusting to the culture. But one thing was familiar.

“It has always been there for me. Through my teenage years and difficulties that I experienced through that time, tennis was the outlet,” Piric said. “Tennis was a friend at times. It was an enemy. But it was something I always had.”

He attended Mills Godwin High School in Richmond. In his senior year, Piric won the Virginia High School State Championship in both singles and doubles and earned a scholarship to the University of Richmond.

Tennis got him away from the blood and agony and into college. He majored in business management and starred on the Spiders’ tennis team.

In his junior year, Piric was selected to the 1999 Bosnian Davis Cup National Team that competed against Egypt and Luxembourg in Cairo, Egypt. Bosnia went 3-2 in Group III of the Europe/Africa Zone with wins over Nigeria, Benin and Tunisia.

Despite the honor to represent his country, Piric was still hungry.

In his final collegiate season in 2000, Piric played at No. 1 singles and doubles and served as team captain.

Upon graduation, it appeared his tennis career was over. Piric took a job as a risk analyst in order to make a living.

“I knew when I went into finance that I had ideas I wanted to do something different than tennis,” he said. “I knew I wasn’t good enough to make it on the professional circuit so I wanted to explore the finance world. That’s something different, and I thought that’d bring me a living. But very quickly in it, I missed the personal interaction that I was able to have when I was a part of teams and relationships that I built through tennis, and I felt like getting back into tennis and sharing those experiences with younger kids who are struggling in life.”

After longing for a return to tennis, Piric got his opportunity.

In 2008, he was offered a job as an assistant coach at Georgia Tech. Piric helped the Yellow Jackets become a top 25 program in just three seasons.

He served as the main recruiting coordinator and developed three-time All-American Guillermo Gomez, the ITA National Indoor Championship Finalist in 2010. Piric also coached Juan Spir and Kevin King who were All-Americans in 2011 and finished with a national ranking of ninth.

Georgia Tech’s rise gained the attention of Old Dominion University. The Monarchs tabbed Piric as their head coach in June 2011.

Under Piric’s leadership, Old Dominion developed into a force to be reckoned with in Conference USA. In his second season with the Monarchs, ODU beat a ranked opponent for the first time since 2009 when Piric’s squad defeated No. 27 Harvard 4-3.

He helped turn around a struggling program into a Conference USA powerhouse. Year after year, Old Dominion was at the top of the conference with players winning numerous C-USA accolades.

In his final two seasons with the Monarchs, Piric’s team went a combined 37-8 and topped seven nationally ranked teams. Old Dominion went from a run of the mill mid-major program to a team ranked No. 48 in the Oracle/ITA Collegiate Tennis Rankings.

But the best was yet to come.

After five seasons with ODU, Piric was named the head coach of the Miami men’s tennis program in June 2016.

The Hurricanes struggled in his inaugural season in Coral Gables and went 9-13 overall, but in year two, UM made big strides. Miami broke into the top 50 of the nation for the first time since April 15, 2014. The Hurricanes completed their winningest campaign since 2011, finishing 15-13.

Piric’s squad has started off strong in 2019, going 5-1 with the lone loss coming against No. 8 Texas.

And while Piric spends hours with his players developing their games, his true impact is made in growing college kids into young men.

“I look at him as my father in a way,” sophomore Bojan Jankulovski said. “Whenever I have a problem, I can call him. He helps me a lot, especially at the beginning of the year when I was homesick. I’m really thankful and grateful for him.”

“He has made me more accountable for what I do,” sophomore Adria Soriano Barrera said. “I think about things more before I make decision. He has taught me that not making the first decision that comes to my mind is always best, but thinking ahead and making the right decision.”

After a tumultuous youth, Piric lives a simple life. When he’s not on the courts, Piric is at home with his wife, Jessica, and two children, Mila and Luca. His value of family is something he tries to stress with his players.

“I think he really emphasizes to the guys to have that feeling we’re here as a team and a family,” assistant coach Petar Danolic said. “We are one. We fight and we work for each other.”

The team will often go to a rock climbing climbing gym or a movie theater before grabbing a bite to eat.

“He emphasizes the time we spend together off the court,” redshirt junior Dane Dunlap said. “He wants to make sure we are a family. The older guys look after the younger guys. We have each other’s backs when he’s not around.”

Despite the success on the court, Piric sees tennis as something bigger than just a game.

“It’s very closely mimicking life,” he said. “Points are played, and they’re either won or lost. “That’s how I looked at it. You either win or you lose. Every time you step on the line, you have the opportunity to do it again. That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned from competing in tennis. That’s something I try to pass down to my players.”

January 28, 2019

Reporters

Josh White


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