Caroline Brinson will cross the stage in her white graduation dress with the rest of her high school class on May 30.
But every morning until then, the Academy of the Sacred Heart senior from New Orleans will wake up at 7:15 a.m., eat a bowl of cereal, drink some orange juice, and go to class as a freshman at Georgia.
Brinson, 18, worked out a joint-enrollment program with both schools so she could join the Georgia women’s tennis team a semester early.
“The challenge was that her high school had never had to deal with anything like that before,” Brinson’s mother, Elizabeth, said. “They had never had any athletes that had done that yet, so that was tough.”
Of the seven Georgia women’s tennis players on the roster, sophomores Mia King and Silvia Garcia also enrolled early.
Brinson arrived at Georgia just before this semester. She had little time to adjust to her new life before the team went to Hawaii to play in the Maui Tennis Classic in mid-January.
“It’s really intimidating to come in when school’s already been in session and you don’t know where everything is,” King said. “She is so much more mature than I would have ever expected her to be, especially with handling the class load and everything.”
Brinson has already made an impact. She has played in both singles (5-1) and doubles (11-2), where she plays with senior Lilly Kimbell. Brinson played at No. 6 singles in Georgia’s Southeastern Conference tournament quarterfinal match against LSU Friday, going 1-6, 6-2, 0-1 against Garbrielle Otero before it was halted after Lauren Herring clinched the match at No. 1 singles. Brinson and Kimbell fell at No. 3 doubles in Georgia’s 4-1 semifinal win over Vanderbilt on Saturday.
But at 1 p.m. today, Brinson and the Bulldogs will play for the conference tournament title, trying to win it like Brinson’s mother and the Bulldogs did 25 years ago.
“(Georgia coach) Jeff (Wallace) was the one that asked her what she thought about coming early,” Brinson’s mother said. “Literally she went from being very, very tentative and a little bit nervous to about 10 minutes later she was like, ‘Of course I’m going to do that. I would be crazy not to.’”
Brinson realized this was a “golden opportunity,” she said. In high school, she challenged herself as much as she could, but still lacked the everyday training and competitive atmosphere collegiate tennis was sure to bring.
“It’s a big benefit for my tennis game and just to be a part of this team as soon as I could,” Brinson said. “I wanted to be here. My heart was here.”
There’s still coursework to finish before she receives her high school diploma. Brinson’s spring class credits — including English, political science, religion and statistics — will count toward her final high school requirements and her first college credits.
“I was used to carrying that course load and having to the balance the athletics and the academics,” Brinson said. “It hasn’t been a tough transition yet. I’m hoping it doesn’t get any harder. I mean, I feel pretty well adjusted.”
One thing that hasn’t been easy to master is the Georgia bus system.
“(My teammates) all helped me on the bus situation because I think that was the most stressful thing,” Brinson said. “My first week of school was all about what bus to get on. Any tip, I’ll take it.”
Apart from the bus dilemma, the transition has been smooth, making it seem like Brinson and the Bulldogs were meant to meet from the beginning.
But that wasn’t always the case — even though her parents, grandfather and uncle were all Georgia athletes. Until Brinson was accepted to the school, Elizabeth had no idea her daughter had any interest at all in attending her alma mater.
“I think she was almost hiding it,” Elizabeth said. “We were visiting all these other schools, but I think in the end she was thrilled.”
Elizabeth was a product of Wallace’s coaching and helped the team win the SEC championship in 1989. She was the reason her daughter started playing the sport. After watching her mother hit balls, Caroline was 8 years old when she decided she wanted to play.
“With her mom playing tennis here and now Caroline also on the team, it’s a great honor for me to be able to say I have a mother and a daughter on my team,” Wallace said. “(It’s) great for Georgia and just really a neat thing for their family.”
Although tennis is somewhat of a family tradition, Elizabeth said she didn’t try to sway Caroline in the direction of her former school.
“It’s hard for me to really explain it but Athens just feels like a home away from home to me,” Brinson said. “It all felt right when I was on campus. The unique town, great food, my family history, the tennis program. … You really can’t beat it. I’m living my dream.”
Although there might have been some hesitation at the beginning, nothing of the sort remains. Once arriving in Athens, Brinson immediately fit in with the rest of the team and is the only freshman on Georgia’s roster.
“She’s not shy, which is awesome,” Georgia junior Lauren Herring said. “When I came, I didn’t say a word for the first week or two. She’s goofy and weird and funny. She’s almost like a new life of the team.”
Brinson’s youthfulness didn’t take long to come out. For the indoor national championship banquet in February, Wallace had the team create YouTube video for fun. Brinson immediately suggested doing a Justin Bieber music video and starred in the video.
Whatever the new experience, Brinson seemingly will face it head on.
“We love her,” King said. “She’s done great, and she’s a natural Bulldog. She’s just conquered everything and been like, ‘Give me what you’ve got, and I’ll take care of it.’”
The Grady Sports Bureau is part of the sports media program at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.