January 7, 2009

Eagles Open Season in Seattle

Jan. 7, 2009

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Last year, the Eastern Washington University men’s tennis team won its first Big Sky Conference title. This year, the team takes on one of its biggest challenges right off the bat with a road contest versus No. 34 Washington.

The Eagles play the Huskies at noon on Saturday (Jan. 10) before taking on Seattle University at 5 p.m. later that day in the first match for the Redhawks since 2002 (the university re-added the sport starting with the 2009 squad).

Eastern Washington and Washington each advanced to the same site for their NCAA First Round competitions last year, where the Eagles fell short of host and third-ranked/seeded UCLA (who would advance to the Final Four) by a 4-0 score, while the Huskies were eliminated by Wisconsin 4-1.

Dating back to last year, the Eagles have won 8-of-9 matches. The team returns six of its eight starters from that squad, and six newcomers join the 2009 team. The six returnees include four who earned All-Big Sky honors a year ago (Pannhara Mam, Nico Riego de Dios and Kyle Schraeder were each named to the first team, while Art Karas earned Honorable Mention accolades).

Also, seniors Karas, Mam and Schraeder are first, second and third, respectively (44, 43 and 37 wins apiece), on the career singles wins listing in the Eastern record book. Senior Daniel Pez is seventh (24), while Riego de Dios, a junior, currently possesses the 10th slot (21).

Last year, Eastern had rallied for 4-3 victories over Montana State and host and regular-season champion Sacramento State to claim the Big Sky title. The Eagles had trailed MSU 3-0 and the Hornets 3-1 before rallying for their two postseason victories.

The team also secured four school records in 2008 (dating back to the team joining the NCAA Division I ranks in 1984), including most wins (18), most Big Sky victories (7), best winning percentage (.720) and longest winning streak (nine, from Feb. 2-March 8).

Most impressively, prior to the past three years, which have seen the Eagles go a combined 42-27, 15-6 in Big Sky play, the team had recorded at least 19 consecutive losing seasons (results from the 1987 campaign are incomplete). In the most recent four years from that span (2002-05), EWU went 6-52, 1-25 in league contests.

Top-Notch Schedule for Eagles in 2009 
     
The Eagles will take on top-notch competition this year, as the team has four nationally-ranked foes on its slate. First up is No. 34 Washington on Saturday (Jan. 10). Then the team faces 66th-ranked Utah on Jan. 16, No. 47 Denver on Jan. 23 and the 70th-ranked BYU Cougars on March 27. Each of those four contests will take place on the road.

There are also four singles players and a pair of doubles tandems who are nationally ranked and scheduled to face Eagle opposition this year.

The singles players include No. 83 Corey Smith of Montana State (play Eastern on March 7 in Cheney), 84th-ranked David Simson of Denver, Sacramento State’s No. 95 Kiryl Harbatsiuk (Feb. 20 in Cheney) and No. 115 Jason Smith of the Hornets.

In doubles, Sacramento State’s Anton Stryhas and Harbatsiuk are ranked 30th nationally, while Northern Arizona has the No. 39 team in Chris Arena and Jaco Visagie (will play EWU in Flagstaff on April 4).

2009 Season Preview
The sky’s the limit for the Eastern Washington University men’s tennis team in 2009, as the team is coming off its first-ever Big Sky Conference title and returns all six singles starters from that squad as well as 6-of-8 letterwinners overall. Additionally, six talented newcomers will join the squad and not only add depth to the team, but push those returners for spots in this year’s starting lineup and make the team better as a whole.

“We are looking to repeat what we did last year, make it to the NCAA Tournament,” head coach Darren Haworth said. “We’ve got six returning singles players who made it to the national tournament last year and several freshmen who will be competing for spots in both singles and doubles. We are also looking to mix up the doubles lineups this year. The players have come back from break in great shape and have been working hard. I don’t expect us to miss a beat and be ready to go with our first match.

Pannhara Mam is coming off an All-Big Sky season which saw him win 15 singles matches, tied for the third-highest total in Eagle history. He also won 16 the year before, the second-best sum, and enters 2009 with 43 career victories, currently second on that list.

“Pannhara had a stellar season last year, and we’re looking for him to battle for the top of our lineup this year with Kyle (Schraeder) and Nico (Riego de Dios),” Haworth said. “He is relentless with his work ethic, both on and off the courts. He is fit and works extremely hard and is going to continue to tear things up from the baseline.”

Kyle Schraeder also earned All-Conference accolades last year after claiming 15 singles wins, tying for third on that EWU record chart. He also had 13 victories the year before, tied for eighth on that list, and enters the 2009 campaign with 37 victories, which places him currently third all-time.

“Kyle continues to be a big staple for our program,” Haworth said. “He is someone you can really rely on, and you know what you’re going to get out of him. He’s probably the best doubles player Eastern Washington has seen and has some of the best volleys I have ever seen. He knows where to be, and he takes control of points.”

Nico Riego de Dios was the third Eagle to attain All-Big Sky accolades. He won 14 matches last year, the seventh-highest total in Eagle history, and the 14th was about as big as it gets. He claimed a 6-2, 2-6, 6-4 win to clinch Eastern’s Big Sky title-winning victory over Sacramento State, 4-3. Riego de Dios has 21 career victories, 10th in Eagle annals. He also earned Big Sky Player of the Week accolades on April 8 of last year.

“Nico has improved his game dramatically over the past year and a half,” Haworth said. “He has continued to work hard throughout practice as well as off the court, where he has gotten into great physical shape. He is also hitting heavier top spin on his ground strokes, and his volleying has improved.”

Art Karas took over the top spot on the EWU career wins chart in dramatic fashion, earning his 44th by 6-7, 7-6, 7-6 scores to clinch Eastern’s 4-3 win over Montana State in the Big Sky semifinals. The victory finished off a dramatic 3-0 comeback for the Eagles in that intense contest. In addition, Karas earned All-Big Sky honorable mention accolades and set the school record for singles wins in a season with 18. He attained Big Sky POW honors on April 21.

“Art is coming off a good season and can play anywhere in the lineup for us,” Haworth said. “His serve has come a long way, and he has improved dramatically at the net. He is one of the best competitors on the team, will never give up and fights harder than anyone I have ever seen.”

Kenneth Norling had a solid 11-8 singles campaign in 2008, playing mostly at the No. 4 position, and the Eagles expect to see more of the same out of the talented Swede. He also went 6-2 in Big Sky matches and won five of his last seven matches of the 2008 campaign.

“Kenneth has continued to improve, and we’re looking for him to be in the regular doubles lineup this year,” Haworth said. “He is a really steady player who does not miss off the baseline. We’re continuing to work on having him play a more aggressive game this year and improve his ability to finish off points at the net.”

Daniel Pez enters 2009 with 24 career singles wins, the sixth-highest sum in Eagle annals, and had 15 last year, which ties for third on that chart. He went a perfect 7-0 at the No. 5 position and 8-2 at No. 6 to finish an impressive 15-2 in singles play in 2008.

“Daniel had a great season last year, and we’re expecting the same out of him in 2009,” Haworth said. “He has worked hard in the weight room in the summer and fall and is in tremendous shape. We’re continuing to work on his doubles and his movement on the court. His doubles return has improved.”

Newcomer Chad Henninger arrives at EWU after playing his high school tennis at Henry D. Sheldon High School in Eugene, Ore.

“Chad has a huge serve and has good ground strokes,” Haworth said. “He still has room for improvement, and we’re working on his consistency, but we feel he is going to be a great player for us in the future.”

Kevin Anderson comes to Eastern from Cactus Shadows High School in Scottsdale, Ariz.

“Kevin has a good all-around game and has been doing a great job so far making the transition from junior tennis to college tennis,” Haworth said. “His volleying ability really helps him out in doubles, and we’re working on getting him to serve and volley even more aggressively. This will also help him finish off points in singles.”

Julian Sanchez is a native of Ciudad Real, Spain, and a former attendee of Universal High School.

“Julian has textbook ground strokes and volleys, but does need to continue to improve his serve and make it more aggressive,” Haworth said. “We are not sure where he is going to fit into the team yet, but know he can have an impact on the team this year in both singles and doubles.”

Eastern’s schedule is top notch, as four opponents are nationally ranked and two advanced to the NCAA Championship last year. Included among those squads are No. 34 Washington, 47th-ranked Denver, No. 66 Utah and the 70th-ranked BYU Cougars. Washington and Denver each advanced to NCAA competition last year.

“In order to compete with the best teams nationally, we need to have each player come and play his best tennis,” Haworth said. “Those matches definitely set the standard for the kind of tennis we need to play throughout the season and for years to come.

“These matches are also good tests to see where our players stand. I’m looking at a couple different lineup possibilities to see who is going to be the best player for each position.”

Once Big Sky play hits, Eastern will receive a lot of competition for the league crown.

“The Big Sky is up for grabs again this year,” Haworth said. “I expect the league to be as competitive as it was last year, if not more.”

Eastern Washington’s first Big Sky match of the year is a rematch of the 2008 title contest versus Sacramento State, as the Hornets pay a visit to Cheney on Feb. 20.

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