Eamonn McCullough – Staff Writer
For the first time in over a year, the Gustavus Men’s Tennis team will face off against intercollegiate opponents in the Swanson Tennis Center. The Gusties are back in action this weekend, facing St. Olaf on Friday, March 5 and both Luther College and Augustana University the following afternoon on Saturday, March 6. This opportunity to compete marks the end of many months of disappointment, frustration, and changed plans.
“I think for the most part [this past year has] been a real rollercoaster of emotions. Excitement, Disappointment… it’s been a lot for the guys to go through,” Senior Lawrence Hiquiana said.
Men’s Tennis, a sport designated as “low risk” by the NCAA, was slated to compete this fall prior to the cancellation of intercollegiate fall sports by the MIAC. Now, after months of hard work and a year’s worth of pent-up desire to compete, building since the cancellation of the NCAA DIII tennis championships last March, one of the most dominant programs in recent Gustavus history is looking forward to putting their training to use.
“Last year it was devastating to have our season cut short. We had a great group of guys including some fantastic seniors, and we liked our chances to grow as a team throughout the season and make a run in the NCAA tournament. I remember thinking a lot throughout the spring and summer about how much I missed practicing and competing with the team, and to now have the chance to do that again, it’s something that I’m cherishing. Our whole team is incredibly grateful for this opportunity, and it certainly isn’t something we’re taking for granted,” Junior Nick Aney said.
Although intercollegiate competition was out of the question for Gustie Tennis this fall, men’s tennis was one of only a few teams who were able to train almost normally throughout the past semester due to tennis’ distanced nature, as well as avoiding the Covid-related shutdowns that challenged other teams.
“I think the fall gave us an interesting opportunity to really fine-tune games, and work on strokes. After all that hard work, a lot of us are excited to see that come together in competition. A lot of guys were working on doubles stuff and singles stuff which we normally don’t get a chance to do in the fall,” Hiquiana said.
Still, the lack of competition this fall makes this weekend feel so much more special for the Gusties, even though they haven’t had the unranked preseason games like in years past to prepare for the season.
“We’re used to having a touring break, or travelling to Florida and playing NAIA and DII teams that don’t really affect rankings and almost get to warm up for the season… This year, we’re starting with the MIAC right out of the gates on Friday, and this feels a little bit different in terms of who we’re playing first versus previous years,” Hiquiana said.
This stands in sharp contrast to some of the teams Gustavus is slated to play this weekend. Although the Gusties play St. Olaf, another MIAC team competing for the first time, on Friday, Gustavus will face off against the Luther College Norse, members of the American Rivers conference, on Saturday. The Norse were able to compete a little this past September, at the American Rivers Conference Championships in Des Moines, IA. Luther won four out of five brackets at that tournament, including a Doubles bracket and three Singles brackets. Since then, they have played two games this spring, falling to the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater 4-5 in early February while topping the College of St. Scholastica 8-1 the following weekend. The Gusties will attempt to drop their record to 1-2 this Saturday evening.
“Luther is a great team that is well coached, and I’ve had a couple memorable matches against them. In the fall ITA my freshman year, I had a long singles match against one of their players that I ended up winning 7-6 in the third set, and then at last year’s ITA I lost to one of their doubles teams in a tight match that ended in a tiebreaker. Given all that, there’s definitely some experience and history that I can lean on, and knowing that I’ve been in close matches against this team before will help me embrace the challenge of competing as well as give me confidence because I’ve been in similar situations,” Aney said.
Additionally, Division II Augustana have been competing since January, establishing a 3-1 record thus far. The Gusties will face them before Luther on Saturday.
Regardless of their opponents’ head starts and the gravity of competing for the first time in over a year, the Gusties are ready to shine.
“Our team loves to compete and play tough matches to answer these questions. There are obviously differences in protocols and how we have to conduct ourselves, but the tennis hasn’t changed and we’re still going out there to play the same sport. Once we get on the court on Friday and hit that first ball and settle into the match, the competition should feel just like a normal match,” Aney said.
Livestream of all this weekend’s matches will be available on the Gustie Athletics website, with Friday play set to begin at 4:30 p.m. against St. Olaf, the Augustana match occurring at 2 p.m. on Saturday, and the weekend concluding with a 6 p.m. match against Luther.