Leafs News
2017-18 PREVIEW: Base Reformed, Goshen Men's Tennis To Build Off It
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Men's Tennis - Sat, Aug. 26, 2017

Goshen College Men's Tennis
2016: Results | Record Book
2017: Roster | Schedule

GOSHEN, Ind. — Stability, it is said, brings success.

For decades, Goshen College men's tennis was the epitome of stability. In the program's first 59 years, it had four coaches, one of whom (Rex Lehman) served a one-year interregnum in 1974.

Come October, all four remaining coaches (Roman Gingerich, Harold Yoder, John Ingold and Stan King) will have either received the Maple Leafs Athletic Club's Champions of Character award or had it named for them. The first three have seen their names immortalized, attached to facilities on campus. The fourth, King, had been associated with the program as a player, alumnus or coach from 1957 through his retirement in 2015.

The sixth coach in program history, Evan Atkinson, was not a total stranger to Maple Leaf tennis when he was hired 18 months ago. An Elkhart County native, he won a sectional at NorthWood High School as a player and Northridge High School as a coach; in between, his career took him to Taylor University in Upland, where he played against Goshen for four straight seasons in what was then the Mid-Central College Conference.

Against the backdrop of that veritable five-headed Mount Rushmore, though, Atkinson did mark a departure from the previous six decades or so. When King left, so too did five graduates from the 2015 team that went 12-2 and came a win short of Goshen's first conference championship since 1995. Atkinson's first team put up the sort of mark one might expect amid all the transition, going 4-9 last fall.

The 2017 team lost one senior, Eric Cender. Thanks to a starting lineup that routinely included seven players due to a substitution between doubles and singles, Goshen brings back six players with varsity experience. With Atkinson in the recruiting saddle for a full year rather than taking the reins in February, the idea of stability suddenly seems considerably less foreign.

"I'm looking forward to growing our teams in a second full season," Atkinson said. "With the director of tennis position, (our men and women) do everything together. I'm looking for a lot of camaraderie among both our men and our women, growing our program, being more visible in our local and campus community, and playing some good tennis."

The lone holdover from the 2015 conference runner-up squad is Aritha Weerasinghe: after playing in the top half of the lineup just four times in his first two seasons, he slid into the number-one spot in singles a season ago and won 48 percent of his sets.

"I'm looking forward to a very good season because we have a strong team," Weerasinghe said. "Compared to last year, we have a good number of returning students and also a number of freshmen."

Along with Eric Zuercher, who played primarily at the second singles spot and first doubles duo, Weerasinghe was an all-conference selection after the 2016 season. A veteran of 80 career matches in his first three seasons, the Colombo, Sri Lanka native identifies the frequency of play as a significant variable in the season.

"Tennis is a very short season, so we're going to have a lot of matches in a week, which can be very tough for us," Weerasinghe said. "Keeping our fitness level consistent and preventing injuries will be some of the challenges that the team is looking forward to."

"The tennis season is a particularly grueling season—it's short, but there are a lot of matches," said sophomore Evan Beck. "So I think one challenge will be consistently bringing energy every single time we play, being ready to play and being mentally prepared. A little tweak of your shoulder can affect quite a few matches and can make a big difference."

Atkinson identifies adversity, in all its forms, as a challenge for his charges. Weerasinghe, Zuercher and Kartikeya Sharma will be the only upperclassmen with multiple years of experience on an 11-player roster, leaving multiple offseasons to grow for more than two-thirds of the team.

"Pushing through mental adversity is a task that is always important in tennis," Atkinson said. "We're competitive in practice, so I think if we continue to do that in our matches we have the talent to be a strong team. Getting over some of the hurdles we had last year, specifically in our doubles play, will be a challenge—making sure we have confidence for each of our matches."

"One thing we're doing to build the program is also some strength training this year," the coach said. "That's new for us, so that will be a big thing. If we can stick with that program and really buy in to all the extras that we're doing, I'll find that successful. If our team building goes well with our men and women getting along and doing things together, just helping us build the community of our team."

Of course, in addition to the macro side of the sport, the group of 11 players means 11 individual games to meld as well.

"Growth in our play will be particularly important," Beck said. "I look to improve my volleys and my net game this year, but every person on the team has something that they are working on and striving to get better at."

The Maple Leafs bring in a class of three freshmen, including Byeong Min Lim, who was a sectional champion and three-year team MVP at Bethany Christian High School in Goshen, and another of his teammates in Brandon Nguyen. Zirndorf, Germany product Lukas Kanther rounds out the incoming class.

"We're returning five of our six starting positions, so a lot of those guys I have high expectations for," Atkinson said. "Lukas Kanther is an incoming freshman who will look to play a big role for us and help us in singles and doubles. And we bring back five starters – it's a similar team from last year, so I'm looking for growth there."

The sport of tennis comes with some inherent segmentation: team matches comprise individual matches, which break down in turn to sets, games and points. The most veteran of Goshen's players hopes his team can see the journey as a whole amid the forest of points along the way.

"Winning and losing actually does not matter for us," Weerasinghe said. "As a team, we should all be together. If it's a win, we should be happy for it. If it's a loss, we should accept the loss and learn from our mistakes and move forward and do better in the next match."

After a season opener Saturday at Judson University in suburban Chicago, Goshen jumps headlong into conference play for five of its next six matches, a product of the Crossroads League being the only NAIA conglomeration to play its tennis slate in the fall.

Following a home opener against Grace on Tuesday, the team visits Bethel on Saturday, Sept. 2, and comes back home to meet Indiana Wesleyan three days later. Another non-conference road trip, to Concordia University of Michigan, begins a stretch where team members could play more than a dozen matches in 10 days ending at the Intercollegiate Tennis Association regionals from Sept. 14-16.

The regional tournament comes one match past the midway point of the fall season, with five dual matches separating the ITA and Crossroads League tournaments. Goshen plays three of its last five matches at home: the two exceptions are the two out-of-state conference road trips, to Spring Arbor's two-year-old courts on Sept. 19 and Mount Vernon Nazarene's first-year program on Sept. 26.

Mount Vernon Nazarene's addition brings the conference's tennis membership to 10 teams and eliminates the need for byes in the conference schedule, so all 10 schools will end their seasons on the same day, Saturday, Sept. 30. The eight-team, single-elimination conference tournament runs from October 3-7, with the winner advancing to the 24-team NAIA tournament next May in Mobile, Alabama.