Eastern Gears Up for a Pair of Crucial Conference Matches
Fighting to get back in the postseason picture, Eagles host Weber State and Northern Arizona in final home matches of the season
With the regular season winding down, and the Big Sky race heating up, it is officially crunch time for the Eastern Washington University men's tennis team. Over the next two weeks, Eastern will play four of the top teams in the conference, all of which are still grappling for a spot in the 2012 Big Sky Championship.
The four teams with the best record at the end of the regular season will advance to the tournament, held April 21-22 in Sacramento, Calif. Eastern has missed out on a postseason bid for two-straight seasons.
First up in Eastern's quest to get back to the tourney is Weber State, which is currently tied for fourth in the conference standings with a 4-2 record. Eastern will play the Wildcats on Friday (April 6), with the definite time and location to be determined. If dry and above 50 degrees, the match will be played at 1 p.m. at the EWU Sports and Recreation Outdoor Tennis Courts in Cheney, Wash. Otherwise, match will be held at 4 p.m. at the indoor courts on the campus of Whitworth University in Spokane, Wash.
Eastern will then host Northern Arizona on Sunday (April 8) in Cheney. The Lumberjacks have struggled to get wins this season, as evidenced by a 1-5 league record. But the Eagles should not be fooled by that, as several of those losses were very narrow 4-3 decisions. The Lumberjacks have also defeated EWU in the last three-consecutive meetings, and in this year's Big Sky preseason coaches' poll, Northern Arizona was picked to finish third with 44 total points - one spot ahead of Eastern, which received 43.
Following the two home matches this weekend, EWU will head out on the road to face the top-seeded Montana Grizzlies and the Bobcats of Montana State.
"All four of our matches in these last two weeks are going to be tough, and it's going to come down to who wants it more," said EWU head coach Darren Haworth. "Our guys are pretty hungry for wins, especially coming off that 3-4 loss for first place to Sac State."
Against the Hornets on March 27, EWU started off the match by capturing the coveted doubles point, but the Eags were not able to get it done in singles, as they dropped four of the six matches to suffer their first setback in conference this season."
"Losing such a close match to Sac might not have been such a bad thing," explained Haworth. "We actually played well against them, and the guys are really fired up now. It's the time of year when we are really peaking, and it's perfect timing for us considering the competition that lies ahead."
Besides Eastern, Weber State has already played every other team in the conference. The Wildcats lost only two matches to Sacramento State and Montana, which are currently the top two teams in the league with undefeated 4-0 records.
Eastern has defeated WSU in five of the last six seasons, but in the most recent meeting in 2011, the Wildcats had the edge, earning a 6-1 victory in Ogden.
"It has been an incredibly competitive season in the Big Sky," said Haworth. "I have a lot of respect for all the coaches in our conference. Each one does a great job of getting their teams prepared for conference play. It should be a lot of fun to see how it all shakes out."
News & Notes
Three Eagles Haul 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
In their final season with the Eagles, seniors Chad Henninger and Julian Sanchez have certainly delivered for the red and white. Henninger has the second-most singles wins of any player in the Big Sky this season with 11. He is 11-3 overall on the year, which includes a perfect 4-0 Big Sky record. Sanchez has earned an 8-5 record in the 2011-12 campaign, and is also undefeated 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 8-4 on the season and 4-0 in league. Henninger and Sanchez are currently tied at fifth in the EWU record book for career singles wins with 38 a piece.