MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - For Irinka Toidze
, West Virginia University served as the ultimate destination for a college education – and tennis.
When Toidze first picked up a racket at age 7, she never thought about one day competing on a collegiate level at WVU, let alone anywhere in the United States.
Toidze is from Georgia. Not the Peach State. Not where the Braves play. But the country 5,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean in Eastern Europe.
Her parents introduced her to the sport by taking her to tennis courts. After a few years, she got serious about it, as her rankings indicated. She held a top-five ranking in Georgia and ranked as high as No. 75 for the 'under 14' category in Europe.
As she grew even more dedicated to the sport in her early teens, she saw her older friends go to college to play tennis.
What? You can go to college and play tennis?
Toidze wanted some of that.
So she did what many of her friends did to get noticed beyond borders. She posted YouTube videos of herself playing tennis in hopes to woo recruiters.
After making inquiries to about a dozen universities, Toidze spotted an institution she'd never heard of before: WVU. She happened to come across WVU while scouring the Internet for universities to attend.
"I hadn't heard of WVU," she said. "I found out about it by looking at a list of school names."
Toidze clicked on a link to WVU's website and later researched the tennis team. She was impressed enough that she emailed assistant coach Brian Sullivan, who alerted head coach Tina Samara.
Judging by Toidze's YouTube video, the coaches thought she had a solid game.
Samara gave Toidze a call.
When the conversation ended, Toidze knew she was going to be a Mountaineer.
"I wasn't looking at emails from other colleges anymore," Toidze said.
"She (Samara) was friendly and honest. There was a positive energy about her. At that point, I wanted to go to WVU."From war to West Virginia
It's been four years since the "Five-Day War," an armed conflict between Georgia and Russia and separatist governments. The clash killed hundreds and left thousands of refugees in shelters.
The echoes of growing up in civil unrest still resonate with Toidze.
"It was depressing," said Toidze, with a hint of sorrow in her voice. "I worried about my friends and family. It makes me sad thinking about it, but now things are getting better there."
As her country healed, those worries would be replaced with new ones. Toidze committed to WVU last December on a scholarship and decided she wanted to study psychology. She was about to embark on a journey never taken before.
She would not only come to the United States for the first time, but she would live here, learn here and grow here.
"I dreamed of going to the U.S. but I didn't know about West Virginia," Toidze said. "I have no regrets."
Coach Samara is typically reserved when it comes to recruiting international players. For one, coaches don't have the same access to players overseas as they do in the states. What they see on YouTube may not exactly be what they get.
"You have to be careful and do as much research as you can when recruiting," said Samara, who entered her third year as women's tennis coach. "Irinka looked good in her video so I decided to call her up."
Samara knew Toidze was a perfect fit.
"I recruit by feel," Samara said. "I had a gut feeling, and I knew that she would appreciate the opportunity and represent the program 100 percent."
A day after the phone conversation, Samara's instincts were reaffirmed when when she received a random email from an Ohio State recruiter. That recruiter had met Toidze in Georgia and he found out that WVU was eying her.
The man sang her praises and told Samara she'd made a lasting impression on him.
Toidze received full support from her family to attend WVU, and she arrived here just six days before the start of the 2012 fall semester.
"I wanted an education and I wanted to play tennis," Toidze said. "My mom really supported me.
"At first, I worried about starting a new life. There was fear. But now I realize it's helped me become more independent."
Toidze relishes one of her first sights of Morgantown. The fall foliage wowed her as she zipped around town for the first time on the PRT.
It's a little different than what she initially envisioned about the United States.
"I only knew about West Virginia from pictures," Toidze said. "When I thought of America, I envisioned New York City."
Morgantown is not New York City. But perhaps it's even more to Toidze.
"This is my second home."