By Darwin Manning
Men’s tennis has been keeping a bounce in their step and strong racket in hand, as they look forward to next weekend’s NCAA Division III National Tournament. Last weekend, they successfully knocked off both Carroll University and Lawrence University in the Midwest Conference Championships. From that resounding success, the team is hoping to bounce into Nationals with a full head of steam.
The Pioneers defeated Carroll 5-1in the semifinals and handled Lawrence 5-0 in the title match.
“I had fearful thoughts that if we don’t win [Conference] this year, how are we going to rebuild 10 years of winning?” said head coach Andy Hamilton. “It is always a piece of success that we want the most because it can be our culminating experience each year.”
The Pioneers faced Carroll in the semi-finals. The No. 2 doubles team of Tracy Johnson ’16 and Colin Johnson ’13 and No. 3 doubles team of Benjamin Charney ’15 and Aaron Lapkin ’15 got the Pioneers up 2-1.
Then, singles victories by Emilio Gomez ’15, C.J. Ray ’16, and Tracy Johnson propelled the team to a finals matchup against Lawrence. Facing a talented Lawrence team, Grinnell won all three of its doubles competitions.
“Lawrence has a deeper team than us, so it was important for us to get out of the gates quickly,” Gomez said. “The moment we captured three doubles victories [and] were up 3-1, it was a great feeling to know that we only needed to win two singles [to win conference].”
The Pioneers did just that, finishing a complete sweep against Lawrence.
The team attributes their tough regular season schedule to its dominance in conference.
“Compared to last year, we tried to beef up our schedule,” Hamilton said. [Our record] is 22-11, and many of those 11 losses have come from regionally ranked opponents in NCAA Division III or [National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics] ranked opponents.”
For a squad with just two healthy seniors that was forced to rely heavily on underclassmen, the tough schedule paid off. Competing in the National Tournament next week, the Pioneers will test their endurance once more. They will first compete in the regional round.
“Hopefully we can advance as far as we can. We know we’re going to run against some tough teams,” Gomez said. “We played a lot of tough competition this season, so we’ll see how we stack up.”
“My hope is that we can translate that good performance against Lawrence into Regionals,” Hamilton added. “The likelihood is we’re going to be either the number four or five seed in a seven team regional, which means we’re going to play someone very similar to us. If we can win on Saturday and make it to the final sixteen, that would really be special.”
With no third year athletes, underclassmen’s performance, again, will be crucial in the tournament. While they played an essential role this year, there is still a need to grow and expand. To climb up the ladder, players need to continue to encourage each other and to possess a resounding sense of confidence.
“We need to keep getting better. If we stay where we are we will be good, but not beat the really good teams,” said Charlie Wilhelm ’15. “When we’re in a tough match, it’s important to pump up each other— not just to fold and accept that we are playing poorly, but to stay positive.”
While Hamilton is hopeful of advancing far into the tournament, he is already very pleased with what he has seen this season.
“My hopes, at the end of the season, are always that we play our best tennis,” he said. “This is sometimes difficult time to play tennis just because of academic rigor. But I’ve been speaking with our team about having all nine positions playing their best. I think we came as close to accomplishing that this season as ever in the championship match.”