Eastern eager for rematch against a familiar postseason opponent
Although it has been a couple years, the Eastern Washington University men's tennis team is well aware of the challenge that lies ahead in this year's Big Sky Conference Men's Tennis Championship.
Making its first appearance in the postseason since 2009, the No. 3 seeded Eagles will take on No. 2 Sacramento State on Saturday (April 21) at 2 p.m. at the Gold River Racquet Club in Sacramento, Calif.
Before its two-year hiatus from the tourney, Eastern had met Sac State in the playoffs for three-consecutive seasons. In 2009 and 2007, the Hornets defeated EWU in the championship match by a score of 4-0 in both years. But in 2008, when the two teams met again in the finals, EWU upset the Hornets, 4-3, to earn the school's first-ever Big Sky tournament title and an automatic berth in the NCAA Men's Tennis Championship.
"It's really exciting for us to be back in the conference tournament," said EWU head coach Darren Haworth. "The conference has gotten tougher and tougher over the years, and with the Big Sky only taking four teams now, it's definitely a huge accomplishment to get there. And we are especially pumped to have another chance to take on Sacramento State."
In the regular-season meeting this year between the Eagles and Hornets, Eastern lost the match in Sacramento in heartbreaking fashion.
After capturing the doubles point with an 8-4 victory at No. 2 and 9-7 win at No. 3, the Eagles had momentum on their side heading into singles. But when Sac State won three of the first four singles matches to go up 3-2, EWU found itself in an unsettling position. The Eagles won the dual at No. 5 in three competitive sets, but before that match had finished, Sac State clinched with a 7-6 (8-6), 6-4 victory at No. 2.
"Sac State is a good team - they are solid one through six," said Haworth. "We can't go for too much too soon against them, and we have to be able to make points last."
"All season, we've had certain guys play well at certain times, but we haven't all played great on the same day," added Haworth. "Teams that win championships all come together on the same day and play great. That's what it's going to take for us."
Sac State is the three-time defending Big Sky tournament champion, and has won nine of the last 14 crowns.
The Hornets finished this season at 9-12 overall and 7-1 in league play. The Eagles were one game back in conference at 6-2, while finishing the regular season with a 12-8 record.
The winner of this match will take on the winner of No. 1 Montana (8-0) versus No. 4 Weber State (5-3) in the championship, slated for Sunday (April 22) at 2 p.m. Eastern beat Weber State earlier this year in Cheney, 4-2, but did lose the 2012 regular-season finale at Montana by a score of 6-1.
"I don't think our team has reached its full potential yet," said Haworth. "I'm really hoping we can make it all happen this weekend."
News & Notes
Sensational Seniors: In their final season with the Eagles, seniors Chad Henninger and Julian Sanchez have certainly delivered for the red and white. Henninger is among the top three in the Big Sky this season for overall singles wins. He is 13-5 on the year, which includes an impressive 6-2 Big Sky record. Sanchez has earned a 10-7 record in the 2011-12 campaign, and is also 6-2 in conference play. Beyond their individual performances, Henninger and Sanchez have proved to be EWU's most successful doubles team as well. The duo is 9-6 on the season and 5-2 in league. These two seniors also appear in the EWU record book for career singles wins. Henninger and Sanchez are currently tied at fourth with 40 apiece.
Five Eagles Reach 10 Wins: This season, five different members of the EWU men's tennis team have reached 10 singles wins. In the previous two years combined, only three players reached double-digit wins. Senior Chad Henninger boasts the best record on the team this year at 13-5. Fellow senior Julian Sanchez is 10-7 on the year, while sophomore Ilija Cuic and junior Kyle Koetje have both earned a 10-8 record heading into the championship. Sophomore Mario Navarro is 10-10 in singles, and sophomore James Russell is just one win away from joining the club, as he is 9-10 this year with three wins at No. 1, five at No. 2 and one at No. 3.
Hauling In Weekly Awards: This season, three different members of the men's tennis team have been named Big Sky Players of the Week. Sophomore James Russell earned the initial award of the 2012 season, after he picked up one win in doubles and one in singles against two nationally-ranked teams. In a match against No. 62 St. Mary's, Russell and partner Mario Navarro outlasted Sherif Hamdy and Seif El Sherbini in a tiebreaker at No. 2 doubles. The Eagle pair rallied from a 4-1 deficit to win the match, 9-8 (9-7). The next day against No. 49 Boise State, Russell prevailed in another arduous match at No. 3 singles, as he knocked off BSU's Scott Sears, 6-4, 2-6, 1-0 (10-4). Senior Chad Henninger earned his first-career weekly accolade a couple weeks later, after a nearly flawless weekend in his native state of Oregon. Against the nationally-ranked Ducks, Henninger won in straight sets at No. 4, 6-2, 7-5. In a conference dual with Portland State, Henninger won his doubles match by a score of 8-2 and then continued to roll in singles, as he downed Alex Marx, 6-3, 7-6 (8-6). On the heels of Henninger's award, sophomore Ilija Cuic was honored for his performance in Eastern's 4-3 win over Gonzaga. Playing No. 1 in both doubles and singles, Cuic and partner Kyle Koetje started off the night with a dominant 8-3 victory against GU's Vladimir Mijatovic and Olivier Jamin. Cuic then went on to defeat Alvaro Nazal in straight sets at No. 1 singles, 7-6 (7-5), 6-4.
Former Eagle to Represent Cambodia in Davis Cup: Three years after wrapping up his collegiate career at EWU, former Eagle Pannhara Mam was invited to participate in tennis' most prestigious international team competition. Mam will represent Cambodia in the country's Davis Cup debut, which officially begins this week in Doha, Qatar. This is a truly historic event for Cambodia,. The Tennis Federation of Cambodia (TFC) was recently elevated to B Class membership - making the country eligible for Davis Cup competition for the first time in history. Mam will compete alongside his brother, Vetu, who was a two-year letterwinner at Portland State. Pannhara and Vetu were born and raised in Salem, Ore., but their father, Sara, is a native of Cambodia. While at Eastern, Mam was selected to the All-Big Sky First-Team as freshman, sophomore, junior and senior. He is the first and only player in Eastern Washington history to be honored on the prestigious list all four years. In 2008, Mam helped the Eagles capture the school's first ever Big Sky tournament title with a 4-3 upset of Sacramento State in the championship match. He is third in the EWU record book for career singles wins, having amassed a total of 48 throughout his tenure. Mam, along with former doubles partner Kyle Schrader, owns the school record for career doubles wins. The duo posted 40 wins together from 2007-09.