March 28, 2018

By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Her father, Bill, won 162 games in 14 seasons as a Major League Baseball pitcher. If he were the only athlete in Chloe Gullickson‘s family, that would be impressive enough. But there’s more. Much more.

Her maternal grandfather, Leroy Leslie, was an All-America basketball player at Notre Dame. Her mother, Sandy, played tennis at Western Kentucky.

And then there are her five siblings, all older than Chloe: Cassie, who was a jumper on the track & field team at Notre Dame; Carly, who had a successful pro tennis career; Craig, who played baseball at Clemson and Georgia; Chelsea, who won an NCAA singles title in tennis at Georgia; and Callie, who’s an accomplished dancer and personal trainer.

Is it any surprise, then, that Chloe gravitated toward sports? After starring as a junior tennis player, she enrolled at the University of Virginia in the summer of 2016 and joined the women’s program.

Despite battling illness, Gullickson posed a 16-13 record in singles as a freshman. This season, for a team that’s climbed to No. 18 in the national rankings, she’s 12-8 in singles and, with senior Cassie Mercer, has posted a 4-2 record in doubles. Gullickson has played mostly at No. 4 singles this season.

“She has incredible potential,” said Sara O’Leary, who’s in her first year as the Cavaliers’ head coach.

“She’s a great ball-striker. She moves really well. She competes really well out there and fights for every point. What’s exciting to me about Chloe is, she really wants to learn, she really wants to get better. It’s taken her a little while to get everything organized within her game, on and off the court, in terms of her fitness, her academics, and coming in extra for individual [workouts]. Now she’s really starting to do that, and we’re just extremely excited about the future for Chloe.”

Growing up in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, Chloe was introduced to sports at an early age. But she says she never felt pressured to uphold the family’s tradition of athletic success.

In fact, Gullickson said, “I think coming from a family of athletes kind of made it easier for me, because I could learn from their mistakes. I could ask them for advice, and they could help me out. So I think it definitely benefited me more than it hurt me.”

A graduate of Cardinal Newman High School, Gullickson also considered such schools as Vanderbilt, Notre Dame and Michigan before choosing Virginia.

Her father’s best friend had attended graduate school at UVA, and “when I started looking at colleges my sophomore year, he was like, `You need to look at the University of Virginia,’ ” Gullickson recalled.

Her family seconded that recommendation. Chelsea had been interested in UVA before choosing Georgia, Chloe said, and their “parents always thought it was a good school and the campus was so pretty. I wanted a school that was [strong] both academically and athletically, and right when I stepped on Grounds, it was just automatic.”

Gullickson committed to UVA on the eve of her senior year of high school. The Wahoos’ head coach then was Mark Guilbeau, who resigned last May. His final season was a trying one for the `Hoos, who were beset by injuries and finished 11-13 overall and 7-7 in the ACC.

In June, UVA hired O’Leary, a North Carolina graduate who filled out her staff with assistant coach Gina Suarez-Malaguti and volunteer assistant Aaron Paul.

“It was definitely a big change,” said Gullickson, who lives with teammates Mercer and Meghan Kelley, “but I think Sara and Gina have done a really great job of emphasizing us not only becoming great players, but becoming better people as well, which I think is really unique, because I never thought when I was being recruited that that would be the case.”

Moreover, Gullickson said, she likes how the coaches “emphasize work ethic and not worrying about the results and winning. It kind of erases the pressure and stress that comes from college athletics. It makes it really enjoyable, and the team culture, because of that, has changed, I think, a lot. We’ve all become much closer, and it’s just been a really good experience so far.”

O’Leary said: “That’s been my main focus this year, just building a great team culture and building that trust within each of them and with us. I think it’s really paid off, and I think they’re really enjoying it. I feel like we have a very healthy culture on our team and they’re happy and excited, and they trust [the coaches], so we’re excited.”

Heading its match with William & Mary, Thursday at 3:30 p.m. at the Snyder Tennis Center, Virginia is 11-4 overall and 6-2 in the ACC.

The fall did not go as smoothly for the Cavaliers, partly because the players and the coaches were so new to each other.

“It’s definitely a process and it takes some time,” O’Leary said, “and I feel like we’re still in that moment of trying to get to know them a little bit better.”

The `Hoos, whose roster includes only two seniors, Mercer and Teodora Radosavljevic, opened their dual-match season in January with a 5-2 loss to Old Dominion at the Boar’s Head Sports Club.

“It was a tough loss,” O’Leary said, “but I think we learned so much from that, and we’ve really been able to build from that and move forward. Sometimes you have to go through those tough times to learn about each other and understand what [the players] need, and I feel like we’re doing that.

“Our focus is not so much on winning and losing. It’s about what [the players] can control, and it’s just about getting better every single day … We’ve really been trying to teach that to all of the women, and I think it’s a different message than what they’ve heard in the past. Again, it’s been a learning experience for them and [required] some adjustments, but they’re now really starting to buy into it, and I think it’s helping them out there on the court.”

Like the team as a whole, Gullickson has improved significantly “from the fall to the spring,” said O’Leary, who came to UVA after three seasons as Davidson’s head coach.

Gullickson, of course, has no shortage of family members from whom she can seek advice about athletic competition.

From her sister Carly, who in 2009 reached No. 123 in the Women’s Tennis Association singles rankings, Chloe has learned the importance of keeping an even keel emotionally. She no longer gets as nervous before matches.

“Coming from juniors, where you kind of only have to worry about yourself, to college sports, where it’s a team, I kind of struggled with that,” Gullickson said, “because you’re not only playing for yourself; you’re playing for your team.

“Carly struggled with nerves a lot, too, and she told me some routines to [use], and it really helped me. And whenever I would lose a match, she would be like, `Chloe, it’s just a match. It’s just tennis.’ It’s funny, because Sara and Gina say the same thing, so that really helped.”

And from her father, who pitched in the majors for Montreal, Cincinnati, the New York Yankees, Houston and Detroit?

“It’s been engraved in my head,” Gullickson said. “He would always say to us, `Prior preparation prevents poor performance.’ So he always emphasized preparation and giving the best in all you can do and basically just trusting in the process, and knowing that no matter what happens you tried your best.”

Gullickson, who’s leaning toward a major in history, does not plan to pursue a pro tennis career after college. Her dream is to become a teacher, she said, and “I would love to do that and see where that takes me.”

For now, though, she’s delighted to be in Charlottesville, thriving at UVA.

“I love it. It’s awesome,” Gullickson said. “It’s so homey. The whole community is so nice and so welcoming.”

She laughed. “When I’m at home [in Florida], I’m like, `I can’t wait to go back home.’ And my mom is like, `What?’ And I say, `Back to school.’ ”

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