Men’s tennis is entering the back half of its conference slate continuing to work through the growing pains that come with having a young, inexperienced roster.
Of the seven players who have seen consistent action in Atlantic 10 play so far this season, six are freshmen who are still adjusting to collegiate-level tennis. Head coach Rob Castille said the Colonials’ (4-11, 3-1 A-10) youth continues to provide a learning curve for the team.
“They are gaining valuable experience and this is obviously going to help them for the future,” Castille said. “The downside of it is that we’re kind of throwing them into the fire right away, so we’re kind of learning as we’re going.”
Since the beginning of the team’s spring slate, junior Dennis Afanasev has been the sole upperclassman to see playing time as junior Jakub Behun injured his wrist and has missed the entire season so far.
The Colonials have struggled to pick up wins in the nonconference slate – with three of the team’s four wins coming over A-10 competition. Castille said there is “no doubt” the team’s nonconference schedule has been tough, he wanted his young players to see the “big picture” benefits of playing against more experienced, skilled opponents.
“It would be great if we picked up some more wins along the way and I think there were matches that we left out there that were ours for the taking,” Castille said. “The biggest message we can send to the guys is that those matches, we got to learn from them.”
In some of their final nonconference matches of the season, the Colonials lost to then No. 48 Florida Atlantic 0–7 and dropped their next two matches to Florida Gulf Coast and South Florida, 5–2 and 6–1, respectively, on a three-game road trip through Florida earlier this month.
Afanasev said despite the losses, the difficult nonconference schedule has boosted the team’s confidence heading into A-10 competition.
“Seeing how close we get with some of these better teams and clearly how competitive we are with them gives us a lot of confidence for playing against some of the A-10 teams,” Afanasev said.
The Colonials began the season without a head coach and with a young roster boasting six freshmen. After Castille was hired midseason and the team went matchless in January for the first time in nearly two decades, the men returned to play Feb 3. and captured their first A-10 victory of the year, winning 6–1 over La Salle.
The Colonials then picked up a 5-2 win against conference foe Duquesne to end a three-game skid March 2 before embarking on a six-game losing streak. GW snapped the skid with a third straight A-10 win against George Mason 5-2 Saturday before dropping to conference-leading VCU 6–1 Sunday.
Castille said the team’s loss to VCU showed the Colonials they still can work on elements of their game like transition play and finishing points off at the net.
Freshman Zicheng Zeng said his teammates try to play every match with the same level of intensity, but competing against A-10 opponents sparks the team and energizes them to perform at a higher level.
“Everyone naturally becomes more pumped up about the competition because we want to win,” Zeng said. “Every time we play against a conference team we were definitely the loudest team on that day.”
Moving forward, Zeng said a strong showing in doubles play is key to winning matches and something the Colonials need to focus more attention on.
Castille said the team feels Behun’s absence and is trying to get him healthy heading into heavy A-10 play. Behun led the Colonials with a 17-12 doubles record and ended the 2017-18 season with a five-match doubles win streak.
“The experience that he brings will be great to add into the lineup if we can get him in there,” Castille said.
With the rest of the team’s schedule consisting of strictly A-10 competition, Castille said now is the time for the team to buckle down and continue to focus on improving their play without overlooking any of their upcoming opponents.
“All the conference matches we have played, even though we’ve won them, there has not been one that has been easy at all,” Castille said. “We’ve had to fight and compete hard for every match that we’ve won.”
The Colonials are back in action Friday as they take on Fordham at the Hawthorn-Rooney Tennis Courts. First serve is scheduled for 1 p.m.