By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
COLLEGE STATION, Texas – As the saying goes, it is most often one’s first love that is the most difficult to forget.
For Texas A&M’s Cristina Sanchez-Quintanar, the school’s first two-time All-American tennis player, that first love has always been soccer.
The fifth-year Aggie senior grew up in Camp de Criptana, Spain, not far from Madrid. With soccer – rather, futbol – as the national pastime in her home country, it was natural that Sanchez-Quintanar developed an affinity for the game.
She was immediately drawn to the sport as a youngster, closely following Real Madrid and looking up to the team’s star player Raul Gonzalez.
Interestingly enough, as synonymous as Spain is with soccer, the sport in that country is not a popular one for women. Sanchez-Quintanar found it difficult even to find a team on which to play in her hometown, so she drifted towards tennis at the age of six.
“In Spain, women’s soccer is not really big,” she said. “I wanted to play soccer when I was little, but there was no team so I started playing tennis. When I was 12 years old, they made a girls team and I wanted to play soccer, but I was already so in to tennis. I spent one year playing both, but I couldn’t keep going with both at a high level. Tennis was the one with more opportunities in the future, so I kept playing tennis. I wasn’t going to go anywhere with soccer in Spain.”
Sanchez-Quintanar’s dedication to tennis led to her being offered a scholarship to play at the University of Maryland where Howard Joffe had recently been named head coach and was looking to engineer a turnaround in the Terrapins program.
Joffe, a former All-American at Pepperdine who in 1989 had been the second-ranked junior tennis player in South Africa, inherited a Maryland program that hadn’t experienced a winning season since 1999 and had won just a combined two Atlantic Coast Conference matches in the three years prior to his arrival.
“My tennis coach was building a program from the bottom,” Sanchez-Quintanar said. “They had a team without any rankings or elite players. He told me he was trying to get some good players and make something big, starting from the bottom. I liked that idea and said that I would give it a try.”
Sanchez-Quintanar arrived midseason in 2009-10 and wouldn’t be eligible to compete in tennis during that spring season. Joffe reached out to Brian Pensky, then the head soccer coach at Maryland, to see if his new pupil might be able to train with the soccer team until she was able to compete in tennis. Pensky agreed.
She competed in seven soccer matches for the Terrapins in 2010, helping Maryland reach the finals of the ACC Tournament, earning the NCAA No. 1 seed and finishing with an 18-2-3 record.
“When I picked Maryland, I didn’t know I was going to play soccer,” Sanchez-Quintanar said. “My coach knew I was very competitive and I couldn’t compete for tennis my first year. I was talking with him and told him that I used to play soccer. He asked if I wanted to try out for the soccer team. I tried out and made the team my first year.
“I was still practicing tennis every day,” she said. “My scholarship was for tennis, so I didn’t want to lose any fitness for tennis. It was definitely worth it because I enjoyed it.”
Sanchez-Quintanar would have loved to have continued playing soccer, but Joffe told her that tennis would require her full dedication and commitment. In 2011, she helped the Terrapins to a 13-11 record and their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 2006.
That summer, Joffe was named the head coach at Texas A&M and Sanchez-Quintanar followed her coach to his new institution. What the Aggies were able to accomplish over the next two season was unprecedented.
As a team, Texas A&M went 45-10 the past two seasons, winning the Southeastern Conference regular-season title in 2013 and advancing to the NCAA Championship match, before falling in the title tilt. Sanchez-Quintanar racked up 81 career victories in her two seasons on the team, breaking the school record for winning percentage at .844 (81-15).
The Aggies finished a school record No. 3 in the national team rankings and Sanchez-Quintanar concluded the year as the ITA’s No. 5-ranked singles player in the nation.
Sanchez-Quintanar capped off her collegiate tennis career with an historic season for Texas A&M in the spring of 2013. She would have one year remaining before she would be set to graduate with a degree in international commerce. Knowing how much Sanchez-Quintanar loved soccer, Joffe approached A&M’s soccer coach G. Guerrieri about adding the tennis star to his team for her final season of eligibility.
“Howard came to me saying how it would be a dream come true for her if she could finish up her college career playing for our team,” Guerrieri said. “I had heard she was a great teammate and really inspired her teammates to play. We can always use more winners and champions on our team. That’s where the conversation began and it all kind of came together over the late spring and summer.”
Playing one final season of soccer was something that had always been in the back of Sanchez-Quintanar’s mind, but a notion that she thought was largely unrealistic.
“By the time I left Maryland, I knew that my time with soccer was done,” she said. “I came here and decided to play tennis, but there was something in me where I wished I could play soccer again. I didn’t think it was going to be possible until the end of last semester. I had planned to be doing an internship or volunteering this semester.”
Sanchez-Quintanar worked Texas A&M’s soccer camps this summer and, while she has had to adjust to the Aggies’ style of play, has quickly found her place on the soccer team.
“The biggest thing for her really hasn’t been technical ability or fitness because she’s incredibly fit and very, very good at coming and doing extra work on her own to get her game up to par,” Guerrieri said. “The biggest thing has been for her to get caught up to the speed of play that we like to play at. We play a pretty quick game. For her, having not played formally in several years, that was the biggest transition.
“Now she has done it,” Guerrieri said. “We’re using her as a forward, someone smart who can help us to take what the other team is giving up and keep possession of the ball. She scored her first goal in our 8-0 win against Mississippi State and has been close to scoring in many others.”
More than anything, soccer has allowed Sanchez-Quintanar to play free. While she had the great fortune of being her tennis squad’s No. 1 player, that distinction also came with responsibility and pressure.
“It was really awesome and one of the best experiences of my life,” Sanchez-Quintanar said of her experience with the Texas A&M tennis team. “Playing No. 1 for my team and keeping up with everything was kind of hard. In soccer I put pressure on myself and if I don’t do good, I get dispirited, but with tennis it was like I had to win for the team to win. We had a really good team here and I wanted to take advantage of that – that’s why I came here.”
Guerrieri has noticed Sanchez-Quintanar’s appreciation for playing soccer in how much enjoyment she has displayed and the amount of gratitude she has shown.
“She is appreciative of everything and, as a coach, you just love that,” he said. “She’s a really positive, uplifting personality anyway, but she’s thankful to her coaches and teammates for giving her the opportunity to step into a really good team and be a part of it as a senior. She really is enjoying the moment and the time in it – a moment she maybe didn’t think she was going to have.”
In the love story starring Sanchez-Quintanar and soccer, the 2013 season has helped close the book on her collegiate career with the ideal narrative.
“This ending is more than perfect,” she said. “I don’t think I could have taken more advantage of my college experience. Being from another country, I never thought I could do all of this – playing for a national championship and now ending my career in soccer. I don’t know what else is coming up, but I would say this is a dream ending.”