Suddenly, the conversation stopped.
Everyone turned to Lisa Marie Rioux, interested in her take on the topic they had been discussing the past 10 minutes.
When she realized she had become the center of attention, she gave a one-word response her teammates had become familiar with:
Everyone laughed. Rioux had not paid attention again.
Perhaps she was thinking about her family. Perhaps she was thinking about Okinawa, Japan, her home.
Perhaps she was thinking about tennis.
Sophomore Catherine Gulihur said she and the other members of the Oklahoma State women’s tennis team have come to expect it from Rioux.
“It’s really funny when we’re all together as a team,” Gulihur said. “It happens so often we almost expect it. Lisa looks up, and we’re all like, ‘Huh?’”
One thing she might be thinking about is her new role. Rioux is a junior, but she is the most experienced player on the team. The departure of the three seniors on last year’s team left her as the only upperclassman.
Rioux said she feels some responsibility to lead the team, but not too much.
“Obviously, someone has to be (the) leader,” Rioux said. “Without seniors, I have to be, so I feel like I have to lead (the) team. But also, I feel like everyone’s very equal in this team… we don’t really have (a) hierarchy.”
After mostly playing on Courts 2 and 3 last year, she primarily plays on Court 1. This means she often faces each team’s best player. Facing that level of competition will help her achieve her goal of improving, which she said is why she came to the United States.
Moving to Court 1 means replacing her roommate Katarina Stresnakova, who was one of the three seniors on last year’s squad and has remained with the team as an assistant. Stresnakova said stepping into a leadership role is a big adjustment for Rioux, but it is one she is handling well.
“I think there was a little bit of an adjustment for her to get used to it,” Stresnakova said. “Because last year, we were the three seniors that were leading the group mostly, so she was just kinda following… I think it’s a little bit different also for (Rioux), because (she comes) from a culture that they’re really self-focused… so I think it’s a harder adjustment for them to become leaders, but I think she is doing great so far.”
Rioux didn’t start her college career as a Cowgirl. She played at Mississippi State her freshman year, then transferred to OSU. She said she felt she needed to transfer to achieve her goal.
“I (didn’t) think I could improve any more with tennis there,” Rioux said. “I wanted to get better, and (the) coaches weren’t too serious… here is more serious. Everybody works so hard here. (The) strength and conditioning program is very good here, tougher than my old school.”
For tennis players, transferring is usually simple. It wasn’t for Rioux. Mississippi State did not grant her a transfer-release agreement, forcing her to sit out her first year at OSU.
OSU coach Chris Young said schools don’t usually do that.
“It’s one of the few cases that I’ve heard of since I’ve been coaching in Division I for 15, 16 years,” Young said. “It’s rare that you’re gonna find a school that blocks a kid these days, unless it’s within conference or there’s extenuating circumstances.”
Because Rioux didn’t get her release, she had to redshirt for a season before debuting for the Cowgirls against No. 4 Duke in Nassau, Bahamas, on Jan. 12, 2019.
She said being unable to play for a year was one of the hardest challenges she has faced in college.
“I couldn’t compete with girls, and I couldn’t really travel or anything,” Rioux said. “That was the hardest year for me because I couldn’t play.”
Living and attending school outside of her native country is another challenge Rioux faces. She goes home every summer and winter break, but she spends the rest of the year 7,221 miles from her family.
She is not alone in this. Many of the Cowgirls are from outside the U.S., such as freshman Lenka Stara from Slovakia. She said Rioux helped her become comfortable living far from home.
“She’s really supportive,” Stara said. “She wants to talk to everyone about tennis, our game and tactics. She’s so friendly. When I came here, she was trying to help.”
The Cowgirls don’t often talk about their homes with one another because their home countries are so different it is hard to find similarities. Gulihur said under certain circumstances, the subject can come up.
“(Rioux) makes the most amazing dumplings for team dinners and whatnot, and then we get to hear more about her home,” Gulihur said. “Or when it’s cold outside, we’re always hearing, ‘In Japan it’s never this cold. It’s never this cold in Japan. It’s so cold here.’”
Rioux cooks often. She said there are only a few restaurants in Stillwater she likes, and she mainly goes to them when she runs out of food. She said there is only one local Japanese restaurant she likes.
“Honestly, the only good Japanese restaurant is the one next to Walmart, and that’s it,” Rioux said. “Others are, I feel like, fake Japanese. But it’s good that at least I have one to go (to).”
So, the next time Rioux seems like she wasn’t paying attention, perhaps she was thinking about what to eat. Perhaps she was thinking about Okinawa. Perhaps she was thinking about what to say the next time she calls her parents, which she does two or three times per week.
Perhaps she was thinking about tennis.