By JOE CLAYTON
“Everybody is key,” said Todd Helbling, coach of the University of Mary Washington men’s tennis team, when asked about any key players for the upcoming spring season.
And they will be, as the Eagles will face 13 of the top 25 nationally-ranked teams in the spring.
“Of course the six guys who are starting any given match, and how their seasons go, is the most important factor as far as results,” said Helbling. “But we need all 11 guys to be ready and push each other. There are always injuries and lineup changes throughout the year, so it is truly a team effort to get better every day.”
Ryan Byrd, a sophomore, is looking forward to facing Emory University in Atlanta, Ga. Emory is the defending NCAA Division III men’s tennis champion. The Eagles will travel to face the champions on April 6. Byrd is also looking forward to a rematch with Kenyon College, the team that ousted the Eagles from the NCAA tournament last spring.
Byrd is just one member of a rising group of sophomores that includes Tyler Carey, Evan Charles, Kaleb Nguyen and Donato Rizzolo. Two freshmen, David Lunding-Johansson and Marcell Rengifo, will also look to help the Eagles as they enter the spring season.
This core group of Eagles that emerged in 2012 will play an integral role in the upcoming season. Seven of the 11 members are freshmen or sophomores, and the future looks bright for the young Eagles.
However, Helbling emphasized the importance of the seniors and juniors on the team as well, going as far as calling them “critical” to the team’s success.
One senior, Sam Wichlin, is trying to heal from a wrist injury as he prepares for the spring campaign. Helbling described Wichland as a “large piece of our puzzle.”
Over Spring Break, the team will travel to California for a four-match trip. During this road trip, the Eagles will take on Occidental College, then three nationally ranked teams in California Lutheran University, Pomona-Pritzer College and the University of Redlands.
Both Byrd and Coach Helbling expressed excitement about junior Alex Blakhin and what he can provide for the team this spring.
“Last year in the spring, Alex started playing really well, and it carried over to the fall,” said Byrd. “I look for him to keep improving this spring.”
No team can succeed without a good mix of youthful energy and the knowledge that comes with experience. This Eagles squad has an intriguing mixture of both.
Last spring, Charles and Rizzolo made it to the semifinals of the NCAA Division III men’s tennis doubles tournament, a fantastic accomplishment for two freshmen.
The spring season, while not without its challenges, looks hopeful for the Eagles as they look to build on the success of a year ago and make an even stronger run into the NCAA tournament in 2013.