Both Eagle squads will kick off 2012 campaign with two competitive matches in two days
The Eastern Washington University men's and women's tennis teams will hit the road this weekend for a pair of season opening matches. The men will head east to play St. Mary's and Boise State in Boise, Idaho, while the women travel west to take on Portland and Oregon in Eugene.
The men's team will have its hands full in Boise, as it faces two teams ranked in the top 75 of the Intercollegiate Tennis Association Men's National Rankings. St. Mary's, which EWU plays on Saturday (Jan. 21), comes in at No. 62. The Eagles will play No. 49 Boise State on Sunday (Jan. 22).
Despite the tall task in opening weekend, EWU head coach Darren Haworth is confident in his team's abilities.
"These first few matches to start off the season are really to see what kind of fitness everybody is in," said Haworth. "But still, I'd really like to win both matches, and I think we have the potential to do so."
Eastern's 2012 men's tennis squad features a balanced roster of three seniors, two juniors, four sophomores and one freshman. Haworth returned seven letterwinners from his 2010-11 roster, as well as one redshirt. He also brought in two international student-athletes, who both bring a great deal of competitive experience to Eastern.
"We have a very deep and competitive roster this year," said Haworth. "It is really a healthy dynamic for a good team to have so many guys pushing each other to make each other better every day. We do have a few injuries here and there, but I think once everything gels together, we have a chance to go really deep this year. I am excited."
The veterans of the squad include seniors Stefan Simikic, Julian Sanchez and Chad Henninger, all of whom finished with a .500 or better record in Big Sky play last season. Sanchez and Henninger were especially strong as doubles partners, finishing the 2011 campaign with a 10-6 overall mark.
Adding to its depth in doubles, EWU welcomes back junior Chris Eriksson and sophomore James Russell, who had a sensational 2011 season as Eastern's No. 3 pair. Eriksson and Russell went 13-2 overall and 7-1 in Big Sky Conference action.
Sophomore Mario Navarro, who played six matches at No. 1 singles and 11 at No. 2 during his rookie season, will return as one of Haworth's top threats in singles. Fellow sophomore Ilija Cuic, who redshirted the 2011 season, is also expected to have a major impact in both pre-conference action and league play.
The women's team, although younger overall than the men, will also look to take advantage of a full roster, both this weekend and throughout the season.
The 2012 squad, under first year head coach Mykala Hedberg, includes one senior, three juniors, three sophomores and four talented freshmen.
"I will certainly have a lot of options available this year, which is great," said Hedberg. "With two matches this weekend, it gives me the opportunity to test the first lineup I had in mind and see how that plays out, then move things around accordingly."
"Heading into our first weekend, I really have high expectations for every single person on the team," added Hedberg. "I'm not expecting just one or two people to carry the load this season. We didn't have anyone selected as captain yet because I wanted everyone to hold each other accountable in their performances both on and off the court."
EWU struggled a bit last year, going 5-18 overall and 1-7 in Big Sky matches, but the Eagles had an encouraging fall season. Freshmen Moira Hedberg and Chrissy Uriarte made some good runs both in singles, and as doubles partners, in Eastern's four fall tournaments.
Returning letterwinners Nefeli Diamanti, Chelsea Patton and Ryann Warner also turned in a few solid performances. After dropping her match in the main draw, Diamanti went on to win the consolation bracket at the EWU Fall Women's Classic (Sept. 28-29) with wins over Montana State and Montana. At the Ducks Invitational (Oct. 23-24) in Eugene, Ore., Patton and Warner both advanced to the finals of their respective consolation brackets.
In addition to those three upperclassmen, EWU returns sophomore Helon Ricks, who earned the best overall record in 2011. Ricks finished the year at 10-11, which included an impressive 5-3 mark in Big Sky play.