By Jeff Shearer
AUBURN, Ala - Caroline Turner was a Texas teenager with a gift for tennis and a hunger to excel.
At the age of 13, Caroline's coach started searching the Metroplex for hitting partners who would challenge the precocious prodigy.
Chris Hooshyar, a two-time captain at Southern Methodist, was working on his master's after completing his college career.
A partnership was born.
"I remember I would hit with him and I would love our lessons," Turner says. "They were so much fun, and I couldn't wait to go hit with him. I loved the way he coached me."
Fast forward six years. Turner and Hooshyar are working together again 700 miles east of Dallas in Auburn.
She's a freshman on the No. 13 Tigers. He's Auburn's assistant coach.
"Since he was with me from such a young age, I feel like he played a big part in my game developing," says Turner, who's already clinched two matches for Auburn.
Even at 13, Hooshyar knew Turner had a chance to be an impact player in college. Her skills were solid. Her motivation was next level.
"It was not necessarily her ball that got me. It was her drive. Her work ethic. She didn't want to quit playing," Hooshyar says. "When I hit with her from a young age and I saw the progression. I saw her dedication to the game. And her love really for the game. It was pure. No one was forcing her to do it. She wasn't miserable on the court. She had a very good hunger about it. Very, very good desire to play."
That changed three years ago, when Auburn women's tennis coach Lauren Spencer called.
"We want to become a national powerhouse," Hooshyar says. "And we've looked at a lot other programs. It takes time. And the number one thing that we felt necessary to get - we're recruiting good players with better characters."
That description fit Turner to a T, but there was a catch.
Caroline, on her way to becoming the top-ranked junior player in Texas, was in 10th grade, off limits to college coaches.
"When Lauren called me about coming here, that's when the connection stopped," Hooshyar says. "I had to cut contact with Caroline."
"When he took the job here, I missed him," Caroline says. "It was a really special bond we had."
Turner completed much of her high school coursework online, allowing more time to travel to tournaments.
As graduation neared, the recruiting window opened and a college decision loomed. The bond between Caroline and Chris resumed.
"Then it was pretty cool. Because the time I did call her after that gap, once that period was over, it was kind of funny because I could check back in on her to see how she was doing," he says. "And then it was also cool because it was in the college setting."
Turner chose the Tigers. The coach of her youth would be her coach again.
"It was kind of nice coming here and knowing someone and having a little piece of home," Caroline says.
"I think there's a very `big brother, little sister' scenario there," Spencer says. "They trust each other. I think she trusts me because of that."
Turner says Hooshyar's holistic approach resonates with student-athletes.
"The bond that he forms with us. He goes out of the way," she says. "He always asks, `How are you doing? How are classes? How's everything else off the court?' As his players, we really feel welcome.
"We don't feel like he only cares about our game, if our forehands are going well. He wants to know how everything is. He can tell if we come to practice and we got a bad grade. He can tell, and we know he cares about us, not just as players," she says.
The desire that helped Turner reach the SEC is helping her emerge as a team leader, even in her first season.
"She is probably the hardest worker on our team," Spencer says. "She's tough. She can handle a lot. You can put a lot on her, and she'll rise to the occasion. She will exert all possible energy and effort into doing whatever the task is."
Hard workers. Good players with better character. Turner is part of the template that's helping Spencer and Hooshyar create a powerhouse program on the Plains.
"I think that's why this year we've had our highest ranking ever. We've had the most singles players ranked at once. Gradually it's gotten better and better. It's the direction of the program," he says. "The program's going in the right direction we want it to go. Because we've got kids who are willing to work and aren't afraid to put their best out there and put your hands up and see what happens."
For Turner, being a part of Auburn's team has only increased her passion for tennis.
"In juniors, win or lose, it's all you," Caroline says. "Playing for a school, and when I'm playing a singles match, it's not if I win or lose. You win as a team. And I play for my team, and my coaches and Auburn."
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer