Tennis Team Ready For New Campaign
The Jesuit tennis team officially embarks on its quest for an eighth consecutive state championship when the squad travels to Mobile on February 25 to open its season at the McGill-Toolan Invitational.
Returning to the courts this year are five of the team’s eight qualifiers for last year’s state tournament.
In doubles, senior Gregory Suhor and junior Brandon Beck hope to replicate last year’s success, when they mowed through the first, second and third seeds at the state tournament last May in Monroe to claim the doubles title, accounting for five of Jesuit’s 18 points. Runner-up Mandeville scored 11 points and Catholic High of Baton Rouge tallied nine.
Junior twins Jacob and Jonathan Niehaus were the last victims of the Suhor/Beck juggernaut last year and have their eyes set on a doubles title of their own this time around. The Niehaus brothers had defeated Beck and Suhor one week earlier in the finals of the regional tournament, but weren’t able to complete the sweep.
“That’s kind of the way it is with those two doubles teams,” says second year Head Coach Travis Smith. “They went back and forth all year in practice.”
At number three doubles, the Jays will look to replace Kevin Mickan and Andrew Tufts, who advanced to the semifinals at the state tournament. The early favorite to fill those large shoes is the sophomore tandem of Jack Steib and Trey Hamlin.
There are some large shoes to fill in singles as well. State finalist Jordan Lacoste graduated, leaving senior Alex DePascual as the lone player on the roster with state singles experience. DePascual advanced to the quarterfinals last year and hopes to go further this time around.
Senior Patrick Torsch and sophomore Graham Buck have been waging a spirited battle for the second singles slot, with Torsch having the early edge.
All this may sound like the team has already settled on line-ups, but that’s not the case. “Anything could change at any time,” says Smith. “Singles players may end up in doubles and vice versa. It’s all very fluid.”
One of the factors that make things fluid is the intense intrasquad competition on Jesuit’s 15-person varsity team. “We don’t keep any guys on the roster who we can’t envision competing at state,” says Smith. “So no one should underestimate our 10-15 guys.”
The “10-15 guys” are juniors Christian Archaga, Andrew Nguyen, Griffin Pels and Andrew Westholz; sophomore Luke Lingle; and freshman Christian Lacoste (brother of Jordan).
Again this year, Mandeville and Catholic High will pose the biggest threat to the Jays, although Brother Martin and Byrd are always forces to be reckoned with as well.
Indeed, many thought the Jays were vulnerable last year and that Mandeville or Catholic might break through. But Jesuit rose to the occasion. “It was just phenomenal,” says Smith of winning a team title in his first year as head coach. “To a man, all of our guys played their best tennis when it mattered most.”
Jesuit’s best tennis is what it will take again this year. The Jays have already scrimmaged informally with Catholic on two occasions, in what has become a spirited but friendly rivalry. The results were inconclusive.
“Based on the top eight, we’re pretty evenly matched,” says Smith. “On paper, they’re stronger than they were last year and we’re not as strong as we were last year. Throw in the luck of the draw at state and who knows what will happen,” says Smith.
“I don’t even think about the streak,” Smith continues. “Don’t get me wrong. We’re not giving up the trophy without a fight. But really all I care about is that my guys compete hard and represent the school with class.”
Competing hard starts with practice, and Smith’s three-hour sessions are full of drills designed to simulate the type of pressure faced by players in three-set matches at regionals and state. More often than not, Smith, a USPTA-certified teaching professional with a 4.5 rating, is right there in the thick of the action, along with his assistant, Jay Combe ’83, a former Jesuit player with a 4.0 rating.
“I’m in over my head with Beck, Suhor and the Niehauses,” says Combe, who relegates himself to occasional doubles play. “But Travis can run with the big dogs in both singles and doubles, and that creates a wonderfully competitive atmosphere at practice. Everybody wants to take it to Coach.”
Part of that, no doubt, is because Smith, by day a mild-mannered English teacher, is a notorious trash talker at practice. But that’s all by design. “Tennis is such a mental game,” says Smith. “So our practices need to focus on the mental as well as the physical.”
The Jays will have plenty of time to toughen up, both mentally and physically, before late April’s regional and state competition. In addition to the Mobile tournament, Jesuit will compete eleven dual meets, starting with Ben Franklin on March 3.