April 28, 2016
By Joe DiSipio ’18
The pop of the ball flying off the racquet is not the only sound reverberating throughout the Eck Tennis Pavilion during women’s tennis matches this season.
Replacing the oft derided grunts of force that pervade the game are the squeals of joy and the patter of small feet of the youngest member of the Notre Dame women’s tennis team.
In October of 2014, Sophia Leaman stood before the crowds and signed her letter of intent to join the Fighting Irish women’s tennis team.
Sophia is just six years old, but she is integral to the team’s success.
Last fall, Sophia matched with the tennis team as part of the Fighting Irish Fight for Life program that brings patients of the pediatric Hematology/Oncology unit of South Bend’s Memorial Hospital together with Irish student-athletes.
Over the past year and a half, Sophia and her family, who are from Goshen, Indiana, have made a commitment to the team as any student-athlete would.
“We try to come up to as many tennis matches as we can,” said Jared Leaman, Sophia’s father. “Usually on the weekends we can make it.”
Like any beginner, Sophia has taken her time observing and digesting the rules of the game.
“She didn’t really know what tennis was before, she had just turned five when we first had contact with the girls,” Jared said.
And like any six-year-old, Sophia was a little shy at the start of her career with Irish tennis.
Slowly but surely, she opened up to the team and one player in particular.
Monica Robinson is a junior from Valley Center, California, who has enjoyed success with the Irish as a member of the No. 1 doubles team and at the No. 2 singles position. Robinson has also easily become Sophia’s favorite member of the team.
“I’ll see her up in the stands, and I’ll always try and give her a little wave,” said Robinson. “She acts like she’s shy, but once she warms up to someone she’s just a ball of light, of sunshine.
“We are really lucky to have her again this year because we already knew her last year, and she is just the sweetest little thing,” said Robinson. “She lights up the room wherever she is, her smile is just precious and she has a great family.”
Robinson’s friendship with Sophia goes beyond the Eck Tennis Pavilion.
“We had an event one time that was a fundraiser that a group had for Sophia,” said Jared Leaman, “and Monica found out about it and was able to surprise her at the fundraiser and that was at our church.”
When Sophia became a part of the team, it meant more than just showing up to a few matches and hanging out afterwards.
It means spending quality time with her team at Notre Dame basketball, soccer and softball games. It means goofing off and painting faces or playing intense games of hide-and-seek.
And like Jared Leaman said, sometimes it means going above and beyond.
“They’ve even come and visited Sophia at the hospital when she was there for a longer day. I think four of the girls came over and just hung out with her, played with her in one of the playrooms,” said Jared.
“It’s just really neat to see student-athletes take the time out of their schedules. I know they’re busy, and I know they’ve got classes and a million other things they could be doing, but they’re staying grounded and keeping their relationship with Sophia, it’s really cool to see,” he adds.
Sophia is a package deal. Her little brother, Ryan, has grown close to the team, too.
“Getting to know the family has been great,” said sophomore Allison Miller, who has become the favorite of Ryan. “It definitely brings me out of my own little world.”
“Ryan is so full of energy,” said Miller. “He always has big smiles for us and likes to run around and give us high-fives and hugs. He doesn’t say a lot yet but is still a big supporter of ours.”
Match after match, Sophia shows up to cheer on her teammates. Somedays she even takes the court herself.
“They gave her a tennis outfit, and she got a tennis racquet for Christmas last year,” Jared said. “So she actually went down on the court and played a little bit with them.”
Even when she’s not serving up aces, Sophia likes to stay involved in the match.
“[Sophia] wanted to borrow my phone, and she went around, she didn’t really know what she was doing, but she was typing down the scores of every match,” Jared explained. “She’s learning her numbers in kindergarten. She doesn’t really know what the score means, but she was going around and paying attention to that.”
The tennis team has truly welcomed the Leamans as part of the Irish family, and it has even had an effect on the family’s rooting interests.
“I actually grew up in Virginia, so I was not originally a Notre Dame fan,” Jared said. “It took me awhile, but this definitely has really helped. … It turned me around to be a Notre Dame fan.”
Sophia fits right in with the Irish, for she is a fighter and has been her whole life.
“Everytime I see her she reminds me of what a fighter she is,” said Robinson. “And it translates to court and makes me want to fight for her.”