Cheney, Wash. – After closing out the year winning three out of its last four matches and defeating the eventual Big Sky Conference Champion, Idaho, for the first time since 2009, the Eastern Washington University men's tennis team is already back to the grind in preparation for a challenging future schedule, using the offseason downtime as an opportunity for improvement.
After finishing 2015 with a league record of 5-6 and an overall record of 7-14, the Eagles had many highpoints throughout the year despite missing the conference tournament by one spot due to a tie-breaker scenario with Northern Arizona. "It was one of those years where there were huge improvements on all fronts – physical, mental and tactical," said first year head coach Steve Clark. "We were knocking on every door all year, especially toward the end of the schedule. We were just that close to playing in the post season."
Even with missing the league tournament by just a small margin, EWU made significant improvements throughout the year to both their singles and doubles play. "Overall, it was great to see all the guys improve on all ends of the spectrum," said Clark. "Especially when you have a guy like sophomore Luke Ness, who wasn't playing much at the start of the year, but was winning some key doubles matches for us down the road. He was even saying he felt much more comfortable winning, which was a huge change. We were winning matches because of improvements like that, and I think it's emblematic of what a lot of the guys went through."
While many players had significant singles wins in 2015, Eastern's doubles play was often a feature point of most matches, earning a doubles point record of 10-11 throughout the entirety of the year. "Our doubles play was huge for us," said Clark. "Our guys have developed into a real doubles team – after getting better at it this year. It was key for us most of the year, and when you're winning nearly half of your doubles points, that is pretty darn good. And as I told the guys, had we won the doubles matches or singles matches that we were in position to win, we would have won most of our doubles points and been 13-8 on the year, gone to conference and had a shot at a good seeding. It was that close."
Leading the charge for the Eagles in doubles was the pairing of sophomore Robert Dula and redshirt junior Eduardo Martinez, EWU's best combination for the season, earning an 8-9 dual record in number one doubles. The duo earned significant wins over the groupings from Idaho, Montana State, and Northern Colorado, while nearly defeating Washington's number one team of Egger and Hawke, who finished the year as the 48th ranked doubles pairing in the country.
Continuing with the lead role for singles, Dula competed at number one in every match for the Eagles, earning six conference wins while accumulating an overall record of 9-10. The native from Rijeka, Croatia was integral in Eastern's late season success, snagging four straight singles wins to end his year, earning the final Big Sky Player of the Week award and a spot on the All-Big Sky First Team. It was his second consecutive year with a one weekly award and one all-conference honor. "Rob has this reputation as a fighter, and he makes sure that he maintains that status," said Clark. "He always fights hard all match and always give his best. His hard-working attitude in practice leaks over into his play. He certainly can beat anyone in our conference."
Dula's doubles partner, Martinez, finished his collegiate career by playing mostly in the second and third positions, winning six total spring dual singles matches in 2015. "Eduardo was a great co-captain this year, and along with Dula, he really led by example," said Clark. "He had a rough year coming off of an injury, but he gave it his best at every match."
Eastern's lone freshman, Vuk Vuckovic, joined the team just before the spring season and also played in the second and third slots, earning a 5-16 record while attempting to make the quick change into Division-I play. "It was rough for Vuk this year, mainly due to his transition toward hard court play," said Clark. "I think he's finally getting used to it, but he has a real big game. When he connects properly, he's able to make some big shots. As a freshman, he also has great on-court demeanor, no matter the situation."
The Eagles' second graduating member, senior Stefan Farrar, made serious improvements late in the season, picking up six singles wins. "Stefan was out a little bit early on in the year, but he hung in there and made his way back into the lineup," said Clark. "He had his number called toward the end of the year, and he answered it completely, especially in our final match against Idaho. He listened intently, and was open about making changes, and as a senior, that is real significant."
Playing year round in the fifth position, junior Eduardo Bringold accumulated a singles record of 12-8, while tallying seven doubles wins over the course of the spring. "Eduardo was able to pick up some wins for us in some matches that we ended up losing," said Clark. "He learned this year to put the pressure on his opponents, when in the past he might not have done that. Toward the end of the year his game got bolder, and he fought for a lot of his wins."
Even with major improvements being made across the board, the Eagles plan on utilizing their time off in order to fully prepare for the upcoming season. Rest and relaxation are not two words in their vernacular. "We are going to be starting earlier this summer with practice, compared to what the team has done before," said Clark. "We are going to play some real tough opponents in the future, but the challenge will be great for us. It is going be hard work, day in, day out. Now that we have our team unity and our team culture, we plan on using that to take advantage of some opportunities that are in front of us. We are planning on success."
"A lot of guys are learning that, in most cases, champions take personal responsibility for a loss," said Clark. "A championship athlete deflects credit, but takes on the blame when things go wrong. That's our mentality moving forward, and when it is fully adapted, we will be a stronger team overall."
After making such major improvements on all fronts, as well as closing out the year strong, the Eastern Washington men's tennis team is excited for the future. Hard work and development is already underway for the Eagles in anticipation for what the next year might hold, hoping that this season's step in the right direction will lead to bigger and better things.