CHICAGO – Fall tournament play is set to commence for the University of Chicago tennis teams as the calendar reaches mid-September. The grind of the dual meet schedule will arrive in January. But the real measuring stick will come rolling around in late April and May.
That's the time when conference titles are clinched, postseason bids are awarded, and national championships are won.
The 2017-18 season produced the most successful campaign in the history of UChicago men's tennis. The first University Athletic Association (UAA) team championship in program history was claimed by the Maroons as they knocked off national-power Emory University by a 7-2 margin in the final. Three weeks later, they reached the NCAA semifinals for the third time in four years.
Now as the calendar flips to 2018-19, UChicago is tasked with replacing a supremely talented set of graduates which included All-Americans Nicolas Chua and David Liu. The group of five helped propel the Maroons to their greatest successes. Now Head Coach Jay Tee is concentrating on maintaining that momentum while forging the next chapter with a new-look team.
"We're not going to be able to replace last year's senior class and their achievements over the last four years; if we try, we're just going to make ourselves miserable by measuring ourselves against someone else," Tee said. "Instead, the team needs to focus on working to get better every day and to build on the foundation that they built while creating a legacy of their own. With such a large class graduating, we have a rare opportunity to further improve the culture and dynamic of the team while also tweaking some things we are doing to better our chances of reaching our ultimate goal of an NCAA Championship."
The 14-man roster is evenly distributed with three seniors, three juniors, three sophomores and five first-years. The top two doubles tandems return with juniors Erik Kerrigan and Ninan Kumar as well as the tandem of junior Tyler Raclin and sophomore Jeremy Yuan. Raclin and Yuan (26-8 record) were both All-Americans and advanced all the way to the NCAA semifinals in the doubles bracket. Earlier in the year, they captured the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) Oracle Cup title for NCAA Division III.
Kerrigan (18-10 singles) played at No. 1 singles at the end of the year and earned All-American status. He will be joined by lineup regulars Yuan (27-7), senior Charlie Pei (17-5) and sophomore Alejandro Rodriguez (12-9).
Now entering his seventh year at UChicago, Tee is most intrigued to see who will step up to lead the team in results and by example.
"We lost a lot of leadership and a lot of wins, so there is an opportunity for some guys to step up for their team in a variety of ways," he said. "We definitely need some guys to raise their games and step up to lead their teammates as well. As far as I'm concerned, this year is a blank slate, and everyone has a chance to be better and to do things even better."
Playing the top teams in the nation deep into the spring for the last four years has proven to be critical to UChicago's development. The Maroons have won an average of 18 matches per season in that period with a consistent national ranking in the top 10.
"Even more important than the experience we gained playing in those big matches is what we learned about what it takes to compete at the highest level nationally," Tee said. "Towards the end of last season, I think we finally understood what it means to compete on a daily basis – not just on big points or in big matches – and we saw our results improve dramatically. If we're going to have a successful season, it will be because we compete as a team, not just because we have a talented roster."
With roles and lineup spots up for grabs, UChicago will look to forge their identity over time during the long season.
"Once again we're going to have a roster full of good players and good guys, which is a great place to start," said Tee. "We'll be young and a little light on experience, but I think we're going to be a much better team at the end of the season than we are at the beginning."
Continuity is one of the defining attributes for the Maroon women's tennis team. All nine starting spots between singles and doubles remain intact for a squad that reached the NCAA quarterfinals for the eighth time in the last 10 years. UChicago finished with a 19-5 overall mark and took runner-up in the UAA for the second-straight season.
"This will be our deepest and most talented roster we've had since the 2011-12 team made the NCAA finals," Tee said. "We return all of our starters from last year's Elite Eight team and add six very capable first-years to the mix. It'll be interesting to see how the lineup shakes out, but one thing is for certain: we will have the ability to win at every spot in the lineup against any team in the country."
The roster of 13 players is comprised of four juniors, three sophomores and six first-years. Sophomore Claire Handa and junior Marjorie Antohi anchored the top of the lineup in both singles and doubles. They posted a combined singles record of 42-14 while going 15-8 as a doubles duo. Antohi and Handa achieved All-American status as well, qualifying for the NCAA tournament in both singles and doubles.
"There's no question that we counted on Marjorie and Claire for two to three team points every match and they delivered in a big way," Tee said. "Claire is a supremely talented player who is one of the cleanest ball strikers in the country while Marjorie is perhaps the best pure competitor that I've ever coached. As good as they were, I believe that both can improve even more and they have a great group of teammates around them who are equally as important to our success."
The 2017-18 Maroons were young across the board and gained plenty of valuable experience across the starting lineup every time out. Tee believes that the team learned two important lessons along the way.
"The first is that we have the ability to compete with anyone in the country if we show up ready to compete and believe in ourselves and our teammates," said the veteran head coach. "The second is that team unity and culture is more important than talent or coaching.
"Last year's team improved so much throughout the season and learned that toughness and grit go a long way when you're playing against the best teams in the country. That came through in our UAA semifinal win versus Carnegie Mellon after losing to them 5-0 a few weeks earlier. We didn't alter the game plan much, but the women came out ready to compete at every singles spot and that was the difference in the result."
Three other juniors were regular starters the past two seasons as well. Estefania Navarro (12-7 singles) and Alyssa Rudin (17-8 singles) also teamed up at third doubles with a resulting 12-2 mark. Laura Gutierrez won a combined 20 singles and doubles bouts. Sophomore Catherine Xu held down the No. 3 singles spot (15-7 record) while also winning 14 doubles matches.
With more new blood entering the fray, solid leadership will be even more important in Tee's mind.
"This year, we're going to need each player to have their own leadership role and find a way to make positive contributions to the team dynamic regardless of what number they play in the lineup," Tee said. "We're going to be young once again which means we'll have a ton of energy and exuberance, but the trick will be to harness it all in a positive way that energizes and motivates each player to compete for their teammates and their university.
"It'll be imperative that we have a good group of leaders to help us navigate through the bumps in the road and the success we hope to enjoy," he continued. "There will undoubtedly be a steep learning curve as there always is with a new year. But if we have leaders who can keep everyone consistent in our approach on a daily basis, then I think we will have a successful season and take a step forward as a program."