Roy Stepanov practices at the Thomas Family Tennis Center, Monday, as the team prepares to move to the ITA Regional Championships, Oct. 19-23.

Roy Stepanov practices at the Thomas Family Tennis Center, Monday, as the team prepares to move to the ITA Regional Championships, Oct. 19-23.

Tennis looks for pairs among young rosters

Inexperienced, but talented. That is the theme of both the Lamar men’s and women’s tennis squads this fall.

The university’s men’s tennis team started their non-conference with four freshmen.

“You can’t always have a junior, senior laden team in college athletics,” men’s head coach, Scott Shankles said. “We just happen to have four seniors graduate last year. Now we have four new guys in the fold. They are talented, hungry, smart and dedicated. It’s going to take time, like it did for the seniors. But, I think, what will really help us is that we have good leadership at the top.”

The men return only five players, sophomore Brock Lauer, juniors Lukas Grubelnig and Sebastian Santibanez and seniors Logan Powell and Benny Schweizer.

“They are doing a really good job of leading by example,” Shankles said. “We have some good solid returning players that have been very beneficial to the young guys. It’s just having the upper classmen hand down a little bit of wisdom and then have the younger guys experience that for themselves.”

Shankles said his biggest challenge is finding good doubles pairings before the Southland Conference starts in January.

“We’re trying to find new partnerships for this particular season,” he said. “I’ve changed a lot of partnerships thus far. Compared to the last two or three years, we’ve kept the same partnerships because those guys have grown up together, but in time, those guys will get more experience and we will be able to hammer down what those doubles teams will be.”

Shankles said because of the newcomers the team has flip-flopped.

LU sophomore Sanja Jolic

LU sophomore Sanja Jolic

“The last few years we have had really strong doubles teams, but because we have a young roster, they are still learning how we play doubles,” he said. “That’s a big learning curve for those guys. But the bright spot in singles is that we’ve competed well against common opponents, as well as national opponents. We haven’t won every single one, which is OK. In the fall, we are just looking to get a lot of matches in so we can get some experience.”

Across the court, the women’s team faces similar problems. The women’s team consists of six freshmen, two sophomores, a junior and senior.

“Most of these young ladies come in and don’t know how to play doubles,” head coach, David Wong said. “We are focusing a lot on doubles and trying to pair up the right combination, making different changes and playing different teams and pairings to find the right mix. The two best players might not make the best doubles so we need to find the right mix with those eight girls.

“Singles is getting better. Our first real tournament was in Lafayette. The result was horrible, but the performance was good. Now moving forward, a week later, we just played in New Orleans. The result was way better and the performance is getting better. We are moving in the right direction as the girls keep buying into the philosophy we are trying to instill in them. The fall is about getting to know the players, their strengths, their weaknesses and to get them into better shape before we start the spring season.”

Wong said this is the best recruiting class he has had in 19 years of coaching.

“There are no weaknesses,” he said. “I think this is the first year that I have coached that this is a very cohesive team, there is no drama. It’s been a real pleasure to work with these young ladies.”

Shankles said despite their youth, the men have had a good start overall.

“We have played three events,” he said. “We started off at the Islander Open and did really well. We had the winner of the single’s draw, Benny Schweizer, who took care of his opponents. I think he won five matches in that particular event. We had another player, Sebastian Santibanez, go to the semifinals.

“We also had a good consolation advancement by our younger guys — Carlos Paton won the consolation draw. We did well that tournament.”

Shankles took two players, Schweizer and Santibanez, to the ITA All-American event in Tulsa, Okla., before the team played in the SLC Fall Classic in New Orleans.

“Unfortunately, that wasn’t a good tournament for us at all,” he said. “We underperformed in singles and in doubles. We got washed out in day two so we didn’t get to see how we would have c0me back, but, all in all, we’re a little more than halfway through the fall season and we have some areas we need to work on, and some bright spots that we are looking forward to continuing to see.”

Shankles said the work ethic of this year’s team has been tremendous.

“Some of our positives, is our team’s ability to work hard in practice and not be afraid to make mistakes, to get better for the long run,” he said. “That’s a very strong message we have been sending to our players — don’t be afraid to make mistakes as long as we learn from them.”

Wong said every opponent is challenging, but he has faith that the Lady Cardinals will be a great team.

“All of them are really good,” he said. “They can all beat anyone on any given day, and that’s the beauty of this team. It would be challenge for me to find out who is the best one.”

tennis2Returning player Jasmine Buchta has really stepped up as a leader to the young team, Wong said.

“She has improved dramatically from last year to this year,” he said. “For her to be a No. 1 player right now, and showing some leadership, is huge for the newcomers. All my freshmen are very solid players. They seem to be very coachable, which is huge. They look at your eyes when you talk to them. They are very focused and committed.

“I see big things for this team. Even though they are young, they are very mature, in the sense that they are accepting changes to get better. They are taking the challenge to get better.”

Wong said one thing he hopes to teach the girls, is how to do deal with adversity,

“Anyone can play tennis, but not everyone can compete,” he said. “What we are trying to do is to teach them how to deal with adversity. How to keep composure, stay focused, stay determined and be committed to the team, to the university and to the athletic program.”

Shankles said the next tournament in College Station will be the most challenging for the team.

Logan Powell

Logan Powell

“The ITA All-American is the first national tournament in the season,” he said. “Most teams from across the country bring players to this event so you are always going to come up against somebody tough. Our upcoming ITA Regional Championship tournament, hosted by Texas A&M, has all Division I schools in the state of Texas. They bring all their players and, because we are in an incredibly tough region, generally we have five teams in the top 20 in the national rankings, making for a steep hill to climb in that event.”

After breaching that gap, Shankles said he wants to invite the community to come watch the team at its only home match this fall, Nov. 3-5.

“We encourage the community to come out the first weekend of November for the Ron Westbrooks Invitational,” he said. “There are going to be some good teams out there. Tyler Junior College is coming out. We’ve got UTSA, a couple of guys from Rice University, Prairie View A&M and, of course, us. It’s going to be a real fun weekend and it will be a good opportunity for people to watch the young team play.”

The women’s team will hit Pensacola to play in the West Florida Invitational this weekend. The team will not have a home match until February.

Wong said he hopes the team will receive some support in the spring.

“They come from different countries and we have 10 girls who could really use some support, so I want to invite everyone to come out and support the team.”

Story by Cassandra Jenkins, UP sports editor

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