On Saturday, Feb. 10, the Macalester men’s and women’s tennis teams began their respective 2018 seasons by defeating St. Scholastica in White Bear Lake, MN. The men were victorious by a 9-0 margin while the women registered a 6-3 victory. After getting the ball rolling with a non-conference meet, both the men and women will get their MIAC seasons underway with a trip to Winona to play St. Mary’s University, who are 0-2 in conference play on the men’s and women’s sides, on Feb. 17.
The opening victory left both teams in a positive frame of mind and looking forward to the big matches that are to come.
“We have some really hot recruits and some really solid returning members, so things are going really well,” Claire Buehler ’20, who won 6-3, 7-5 at #2 singles against St. Scholastica, said. “Our first match went splendidly. I mean, there’s always room for improvement, but it went really, really well.”
As is so often the case, both teams found themselves transitioning from the 2017 to 2018 seasons. Both lineups look different than they did a year ago. In a college tennis meet, nine matches (six singles and three doubles) are played, with the two team’s respective best singles or doubles players going up against each other. The importance of every match means that many players have to play both singles and doubles. That has been true for the women’s team’s stalwart first years, Laurel Hickey ’21 and Natali Sorajja ’21, who debuted at #1 and #5 singles respectively, and won 8-2 together at #1 doubles. Not to be outdone, the men also added two first years to their lineup in Sam Hochberger ’21 and Ben White ’21, who wound up in the singles lineup and played with the team’s seasoned veterans in the doubles.
Each team has looked to integrate its young players differently. Hickey, who won her opening singles match 6-3, 6-2, was asked to play her first collegiate match at the top singles position before partnering Sorajja in doubles. Hickey took that challenge in stride, and drew on the experience gained over the limited fall season and her time playing in high school.
“I have always played singles and doubles, because I grew up in North Carolina, where they did play singles and doubles in high school,” she said. “Then we moved to New Jersey, and high school tennis is set up differently, so you only play one. But I have normally played both.”
Meanwhile, the men opted to pair inexperience with leadership against St. Scholastica. Josh Doyle ’18, the team’s #1 singles player, followed up a 6-2, 7-6 (7-2) singles win by joining Hochenberger on the #1 doubles court and winning 8-2. The team’s other anchor, #2 singles player Aidan Tirpack ’18, followed up a 6-4, 6-1 singles victory with an 8-6 win at #2 doubles alongside White.
“It’s definitely helpful as a first year to have that upperclassman support system,” Tirpack said. “So we have a senior and a [first year] playing #1 doubles, and then we have me and another first year playing #2 doubles. So we have that balance, of a leader and a younger person. It definitely helps out in the tight matches, when someone gets nervous, to have someone who’s been through it before, and I know I experienced that as a first year.”
As the season kicks into high gear with the start of MIAC play, expectations for the two teams around the conference diverge. In the MIAC Coaches Preseason Poll, the men’s team, which returns five of its top six players from last year, was picked to finish third, behind Carleton and 29-time reigning champion Gustavus Adolphus. On the flip side, the coaches tipped the women’s team to finish ninth in a more open field. Regardless of preseason opinions, each team is focused on qualifying for the Conference Playoffs. For the men’s team, that means finishing in the Conference’s top-five, which they just missed out on last season, while the women’s team must be in the top-six to qualify for their first Playoff appearance since 2008.
“I think the ultimate goal is to make [the] playoffs,” said Tirpack. “My freshman and sophomore year we made [the] playoffs and then last year we just missed it by one match. So, that’d be the long-term goal.”
Before either team seriously contemplates playing the MIAC Playoffs, they have to not only reckon with traditional rivals like Carleton, Hamline and St. Thomas in the Conference season, but also find time to enjoy the trip they will take together over spring break. Over the weeklong break, both teams will leave snowy Minnesota for a week in Hilton Head, South Carolina. There, they will play four matches in five days against Ohio Wesleyan University, Concordia University (Wis.), Berry College (Ga.) and Washington College (Md.) in between hanging out on the beach and riding bikes across the island.
“[I’m looking forward to] the spring break trip, that will be fun…” said Sorajja. “I’m looking forward to seeing everyone get better too, just looking forward to how the season turns out, in general. Because, right now, we played a team that was non-conference, and we want to see how we stack up against the teams in conference.”
Both teams will have their first chance to do just that this Saturday against Saint Mary’s.