May 6, 2008
By Darren Shimp
The Eastern Washington University men's tennis team has racked up the accolades.
This includes a Big Sky Conference Coach of the Year (Darren Haworth), three players on the conference's first team (Pannhara Mam, Nico Riego de Dios and Kyle Schraeder), one on its honorable mention list (Art Karas) and two conference player of the week awards (Riego de Dios and Karas).
As a team, the Eagles have had two long winning streaks this season, including their current eight-match string and an earlier school-record nine match streak.
It might be safe to assume these men of a sport, generally regarded as elitist and hoity-toity, are themselves highbrow and difficult to relate to.
My, how wrong that assumption would be.
The mood and energy of the men on the tennis courts at Eastern do not have the feel of a team that snatched victory from the talons of defeat in the final two rounds of the Big Sky Conference Championship. The Eagles are loose, relaxed and carefree. They honestly enjoy each other's companionship, sometimes unique to a collegiate program.
This is the first time the Eagles have been this far, but it is difficult to tell with the demeanor of the team. Given the sport, it is surprising that they are not too high strung.
There is the prototypical razzing and mocking of each other, knowing they have nothing to lose this weekend when they travel to Los Angeles to face the 16-time national champion UCLA Bruins in the first round of this year's NCAA Championship.
What is the key to the team's success?
"We've just known each other for a long time," said junior Schraeder. "Even though Kenny (Kenneth Norling) came in this year, he just joined the family. We're used to each other and happy with each other."
The Eagles even found the strength during their informal practice Tuesday afternoon (May 6) to give a campus photographer a hard time taking serious pictures of the team, amid Maria Sharapova-like squeals and posing in unnatural stances.
The team's chemistry has evolved into a competitive advantage versus the opposing squads of the Big Sky.
"Since we knew we were pretty much returning everybody, we knew that we were going to be pretty tough to beat this year," said Jonathan Davis. "Toward the end of last year was when we really started coming together. Everybody left all their problems at the door."
They admitted the personalities were tough to mesh at first and that maturity was a key factor, but with time came patience - and with patience came success. Now the Eagles are just as good of friends off the court as they are on it.
"The goal of winning the conference championship really brought us together," said junior Karas.
With only two players using up their eligibility this season (Davis and fellow senior Patrick Millican), the team hopes to continue its rise among the NCAA ranks, not just the Big Sky.
"I wish I could do this," said Riego de Dios, holding up three fingers, looking to earn two more BSC championship rings.
The nicknames on the team range from the obvious to the obscure: Swede (Norling), Big J (Davis), Pun and Chubby (Mam), Artski (Karas), and Milli (Millican). One nickname even came from a tournament announcer's incorrect pronunciation of a name, Nico Riego re Rios (Riego de Dios).
With the rings and awards in one hand, and a bag full of nicknames in the other, the tennis team is ready for the Bruins, and the Eagles feel they have nothing to lose. The plane departs Friday morning (May 9) to California, and the team is ready to rock.
They have been underdogs all season, as the Eastern Washington was picked to finish fifth in the conference preseason poll. Now perhaps the underdog can come out on top once more.
Watch out Bruins.