Few things in life are certain: death, taxes and the Grinnell men’s tennis team winning the Midwest Conference. For the 12th year in a row, the Pioneers won the Conference Championships, cruising to a 5-0 defeat of Lake Forest College in Madison, Wisconsin this past weekend.
With winning being such a regularity, it would seem that the Conference title could lose some of its glory. This is not how the Pioneers see it, however. Winning is a legacy for Grinnell men’s tennis, passed down to the current players from the alumni.
“Just trying to uphold the tradition,” said Emilio Gomez ’15. “It feels good to keep the streak going, so that’s why it’s special.”
Gomez was proud of his performance, but he was quick to praise the team as a whole.
“I won all my matches, but almost everyone won all their matches,” Gomez said.
Gomez praised his doubles partner. Tracy Johnson ’16, in particular, who leads the starting team with a .720 win percentage.
After claiming the MWC title on Friday, the Pioneers dominated the individual singles and doubles tournaments on Saturday and Sunday. In singles, Johnson, Gomez, Cole Miller ’17, Aaron Lapkin ’15 and Charlie Wilhelm ’15 all claimed titles at their respective positions. In doubles, the teams of Gomez-Johnson and Miller-CJ Ray ’16 claimed titles at their respective positions.
Head coach Andy Hamilton ’85 cited the team’s depth as a reason for their sustained success. This depth allows for more rest for Grinnell players, but also gives Grinnell the added benefit of being able to get better intra-squad competition.
“Everyday when our guys go to practice, they play against good players,” Hamilton said.
Still, with so many players coming and going over the past 12 years, Grinnell needs to be proactive with their recruiting to keep dominating the Conference. Elliott Czarnecki ’15, the Pioneers’ No. 1 player for the past four years, believes that Grinnell’s rigorous academics are a major boon for the team’s ability to recruit top talent.
“Grinnell is obviously a great educational school, and I think tennis is a quintessential country club sport, so there [are] a lot of people who play tennis at a high level and really want a great education and Grinnell can offer that,” Czarnecki said.
From here on out, the road only gets more difficult for the Pioneers. In the next few days Grinnell will learn their seeding for the upcoming 64-team, single elimination NCAA Division III Men’s National Tennis Championships. The competition is certain to be more intimidating, considering that schools like Claremont McKenna, the No. 1 Division III team, will be present. Last year, Claremont McKenna held their own versus the No. 1 Division I school, UCLA, in an official meat.
Last year, the Pioneers made it to the round of 32, tying a team record, before losing to Trinity University, the eventual runners-up. This year, however, Grinnell is not ruling out a deeper run.
“We’re striving for the round of 16,” Gomez said.
Gomez also believes that a berth in the sweet 16 or further would mean a lot to the program since it has never been done before.
Whether or not they meet with these lofty goals at the national tournament, the men’s tennis team will likely look very different next year. A huge senior class is graduating in a few weeks, including starters Czarnecki, Gomez, Lapkin, Wilhelm and Rob Storrick ’15.
Coach Hamilton is being realistic, while remaining somewhat optimistic, about the loss of so many key players.
“We need to recognize that we’re losing loads of talent and maybe more importantly, loads of leadership. But that’s part of college athletics,” Hamilton said.
Along with the team’s upcoming changes, the lives of the graduating seniors are sure to feel different after they play their last competitive match at Nationals. However, Czarnecki is choosing not to look at it that way. While his collegiate career may be over, Czarnecki still believes he has much tennis left to play.
“My grandpa’s like 85 and he still plays a little bit during the week so I’ll definitely continue to keep it up,” Czarnecki said. “I am definitely going to keep my rackets.”