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Released March 23, 2005



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 record.

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 championship.

So how does Southern Miss, a non-scholarship program, compete with the heavier hitters across the country? Easy, Ramakrishnan says.

"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.


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April 14, 2005 11:49 AM