HATTIESBURG – They
aren't improbable like the Jamaican bobsled team. But they do have
that kind of moxie.
And like the infamous overachievers whose Olympic
exploits spawned a Hollywood movie, the Southern Miss table tennis
team has routinely defied expectations, stunning college powerhouses
and better financed competitors on its way to a perfect 10-0 regional
At the end of this month, they'll get a chance to
mint their undefeated season with a gold medal at the National Collegiate
Table Tennis Association championships in Fort Worth, Texas.
Team leader Nara "Tiger" Ramakrishnan is
pointed about his expectations.
"We will settle for nothing less than a national
championship," says Ramakrishnan, a co-founder of the club
and an enthusiastic promoter of table tennis.
Played by more people competitively than any other
game in the world, table tennis at this level isn't your backyard
Ping-Pong or rec-room leisure variety. It's a serious sport played
by serious athletes.
Many of the teams Southern Miss will face March 31-April
2--teams like the University of Maryland, University of California
Berkeley, Southern California, University of Pennsylvania and defending
champ Texas Wesleyan--offer scholarships to lure the top table tennis
players in the world.
Without being able to offer such scholarships --"yet,"
as Ramakrishnan is quick to emphasize and tirelessly working to
change--Southern Miss has still managed to land some of the most
talented up-and-coming players.
First among equals at Southern Miss is Bong Geun Kim,
a native of South Korea.
The son of Soon Nam Lee and 1988 Seoul Paralympics
gold medalist Kwang Jin Kim, he is the second-highest-ranked singles
player in college table tennis. Before moving to the United States,
Kim received a scholarship to play for two-time national champion
Inha University in Korea, where he was a top 10 collegiate player.
After coming to Southern Miss, Kim, a former member
of the Korean junior national team, joined the table tennis team
and quickly began dominating the college circuit. A sophomore, Kim
has a 21-1 record in NCTTA competition, including a quarterfinal
appearance in last year's ACUI singles championship. Kim, whose
sister Kyung Ha Kim plays for the Korean national table tennis team,
is the second overall seed in the tournament.
Southern Miss also has the ninth-seeded player, Shankaren
Chandramouli, and the 17th-seeded player, Ramakrishnan. Students
Makoto Kinomo and Mark Brana round out the team that will travel
to Forth Worth, where 42 men and 20 women will compete in the ACUI/NCTTA
So how does Southern Miss, a non-scholarship program,
compete with the heavier hitters across the country? Easy, Ramakrishnan
"We are getting good players who want to come
to play for Southern Miss and study here. Bong Kim and Shankaren
are here because they think Southern Miss is a much better school
compared to teams offering scholarship programs," he says.
Started as a club three years ago, the table tennis
team meets in the Payne Center where members practice up to 15 hours
a week. A practice robot the team purchased last year helps develop
crucial skills. Currently, about three women are club members, although
efforts are being made to grow those numbers, Ramakrishnan says.
Also toiling to attract top-flight players to Southern
Miss is Dr. Adel Ali, who serves as the team manager and club director.
Ramakrishnan calls Ali the "mastermind behind the growth and
success of Southern Miss table tennis."
Ali says "persistence" is the key to the
team's success. "We've managed to attract great players by
raising the awareness and visibility of the sport, by arranging
tournaments," Ali says. "It took about three years to
gain momentum, but once we were able to get a few good players,
we started getting more because good players want to play with other
good players." Ali also credits the work of Ramakrishnan and
Dr. Joe Paul, vice president for student affairs, for their efforts
in building the program.
Of course, winning a national championship--which
is not unlikely for Southern Miss--would be like winning the Super
Lotto of recruiting.
"That would be our ticket to go talk to the big
national sponsors," Ali says.
And because Southern Miss has managed to get by with
so little for so long, Ali says it's critical to take advantage
of this opportunity--and that means bringing home the gold--while
the team can.
"We've gotten a lot of good, committed players
without scholarships, but we're not going to stay that lucky over
the long run. For Southern Miss to be known in the long run, we
have to take advantage of this option right now," he says.