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The Scarlet & Black

Men’s tennis strives for dynasty

Co-captain+Emilo+Gomez+%E2%80%9915+hits+a+forehand+during+practice.+Photograph+by+John+Brady.+
Co-captain Emilo Gomez ’15 hits a forehand during practice. Photograph by John Brady.

One decade down and here’s to the next one. After capturing its 10th Midwest Conference Championship in 10 years last season, the men’s tennis team will begin its quest for the 11th consecutive title this weekend. In their opening contest of the season, this Saturday, Feb. 1, the Pioneers will face Truman State University and Graceland University.

Although the two opponents are not part of the Midwest Conference, this weekend’s games will provide the team with a yardstick of sorts for the upcoming season.

“We play a Division II team and a very good [National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics] team—top 15 in the country,” said head coach Andy Hamilton ’85. “My hope is that we get a lot of playing time with our top group. If things go as they have been in the past, we’re a little bit stronger than Truman and looking up the ladder in Graceland. I’m excited to see how well we compete against Graceland this weekend.”

A strong incoming class, many of whom will play in key matches this season, should provide a boost to this year’s squad. The new players join an already talented and deep unit, which will certainly make practice more competitive.

“[Our strength] really is the depth,” said Tracy Johnson ’16.  “While we might not have the all-stars that are going to win national titles themselves, we do have very good players.”

According to Hamilton, depth is an essential component in building poise during a long season and honing players’ skills.

“I think the reason we should have a lot of confidence is the fact that we’re very deep in our team,” Hamilton said. “Depth allows you to get better in practice, so our guys are going to be steel sharpening steel every time they step on to the court.”

The coaching staff and teammates especially expect Cole Miller ’17 and Tommy Pitcher ’17 to fill big shoes from the beginning.

“Two very fine freshmen proved to be talented in the fall,” Hamilton said. “[Pitcher] was a state champion in Iowa and [Miller] comes from California, and California tennis is just very good.”

According to Miller, he believes his mental game allows him to compete at a higher level.

“I wouldn’t attribute myself being superior to other players in terms of technique. I would say it’s tenacity,” he said. “I see a lot of guys—they get inside of their heads and get mad at themselves. I try to stay away from that and be very tenacious on the court and not give up at all—fight ‘till the end.”

Although he might not be nervous, Miller certainly is excited, as the first game of his promising college career approaches. Still, he is ready to set aside his excitement and the pressure that comes with Grinnell’s tradition of success, and start the season and his career on a positive note.

“I try not to think about [past championships], Miller said. “I try to get in my own zone. I don’t think about the past wins that Grinnell has had. I just think about the wins that I want to get and how I want to contribute to the team.”

While many capable first-years have joined the team, they enter a squad with no seniors. Three juniors, Emilio Gomez, Rob Storrick and Elliott Czarnecki serve as team captains. Despite their relative youth, they are prepared to take on the challenge of captainship, and no one on the team is worried about potential lack of leadership.

“We keep in close contact with the alums and we don’t want to let them or Coach Hamilton down,” Gomez said. “I think if we prepare the right way, take their advice, work to 100 percent—as long as we do the right things—we will be fine.”

According to Johnson, the absence of seniors simply means this year’s team is in for a long haul.

“[Having no seniors] just means that our captains are here for two years,” he said. “They’re learning as they go along, but they got good mentorship from seniors last year, so it’s round one of a team we’re going to have for two years.”

New yet solid leadership has helped first-year players feel right at home as they transition to collegiate athletics and allowed the group as a whole to form a stronger bond with each other.

“We all love each other,” Gomez said. “Grinnell tennis has definitely been one of my favorite Grinnell aspects here, and I would say that for everyone on the team, as well. We just love being around each other. It’s like the first-years have been here the whole time.”

Co-captain Emilo Gomez ’15 hits a forehand during practice. Photograph by John Brady.
Co-captain Emilo Gomez ’15 hits a forehand during practice. Photograph by John Brady.

This camaraderie, however, may seem like it does not exist during practice because of coaches’ high standards, an unmatchable intensity and an even talent level among many players. The players are getting to experience firsthand the cliché “practice makes perfect.”

“[The coaches] are all about making practices just like a match,” Johnson said. “Every time we’re playing in practice, we pretend it’s match point. That’ll help the nerves of a real match come out. We never waste any time on the court because in tennis you need a lot of reps.”

But the Pioneers all know what they are fighting for and are not complaining.

“We want to hang on,” Hamilton said. “To the Midwest Conference Championship— that’s always our goal.”

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