Experienced AUM Men's tennis squad aims for 10th national title | Schools
After an exit in the NAIA Quarterfinals last season, there are plenty of reasons to believe that this year’s Auburn Montgomery men’s tennis team can contend for its 10th national championship in 2013.
The Warhawks return all but one player from a squad which finished last season ranked fifth in the nation, highlighted by Southern States Athletic Conference Player and Freshman of the Year, Nicolas Pinones-Haltenhoff.
AUM also has two additions, senior Tim Hewitt and sophomore Othmane Lalami, who enter the year ranked in the top 20 nationally for singles by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association. Head Coach Rolando Vargas expects the pair, along with sophomore Miguel Grifol, to provide much needed depth this season.
“Last year we were young, and we only had six players,” Vargas said. “So if anyone was injured or sore, there was nothing we could do. There were a couple of times where I thought that was a factor, especially against good teams. But this season, we have three additions that will be invaluable for us.”
The new players will be supporting a group of returners that finished last year 17-8, winning its eighth straight SSAC Championship in the process.
Pinones-Haltenhoff led the way for the Warhawks, winning 20-of-24 matches from the No. 1 singles position and going 16-2 at No. 2 doubles, playing primarily with Zinelabidine Jouini. He earned NAIA First-Team All-America recognition for his accomplishments. Entering 2013 as the second-ranked NAIA singles player by the ITA, Vargas hopes for a similar season in Pinones-Haltenhoff’s sophomore year.
“Nico was outstanding last year,” Vargas said. “Being so young, it’s always difficult to start in the top position, but he was ready for the challenge. Hopefully he can keep it up and keep working hard. Having him and Tim gives us a lot of options at the top of our lineup.”
Hewitt is a transfer Auburn University who practiced with the Warhawks last season. He partnered with Pinones-Haltenhoff in the fall to win the NAIA national championships. The Bournemouth, England native also has a successful fall in singles, finishing second to Pinones-Haltenhoff in regionals and entering the spring as the No. 6 ranked singles player in the NAIA.
“He definitely knows what it takes to play on the college level,” Vargas said. “Having him on the team has just been tremendous because he is a good leader. He works hard, and his energy spreads to the rest of the team. He’s going to be a great addition to our team this season.”
After the top two positions, there appears to be an open battle for the remaining spots in the starting lineup.
Lalami, a sophomore from Casablanca, Morocco who also practiced with AUM last year, is coming off a semifinal performance in regionals during the fall, losing in three tough sets to Pinones-Haltenhoff. He is the 16th ranked NAIA singles player going into 2013.
“Othmane played really well in the fall,” Vargas said. “At regionals, you could tell from the look in his eye that he wanted to show the team what he was made of. It’s going to be interesting to see how he develops. If he plays the way he did in the fall, he could certainly earn the three of four position.”
Lalami will likely play with Jouini in doubles after the pair advanced to the finals of regionals in the fall. A junior, Jouini was 22-3 in singles last year (primarily at No. 5) and 18-7 overall in doubles, earning first-team all-conference honors.
“Zino was great for us last year,” Vargas said. “He had the most singles victories on the team. He will definitely be competing for a spot in the middle of the lineup.”
Senior Bence Toth, a second-team NAIA All-American last year, will be another contender for the No. 3 position. The Budapest, Hungary native was 15-8 in singles, including a 14-8 mark at No. 2 singles, and he is the only player remaining from AUM’s 2010 national championship winning team.
“Bence has all the experience,” Vargas said. “He’s played in the top positions for us the past few years, and he’s had tremendous success. I think he has a bit of an edge for the third spot because of his experience.”
Grifol, AUM’s third addition this year, will also compete for playing time, along with Josh Reason (who earned NAIA All-American honorable mention in 2012) and Matias Dasso.
“Miguel is a good young player who will be ready to play in the spring,” Vargas said of Grifol. “He’s a top player from Argentina who has a lot of skill.”
Reason went 15-8 from the No. 3 singles position last year for the Warhawks, and also saw extensive action at No. 1 doubles.
“Josh showed a lot of confidence, and was able to step up for us last year after not having a lot of experience,” Vargas said. “He had a great run, and will certainly be important to our success this year.”
Dasso played primarily at No. 6 singles and No. 3 doubles in 2012, earning second-team all-conference honors for his performance.
“Matias has definitely shown improvement, and he was a valuable player for our success last season,” Vargas said. “I think he’s only going to get better.”
Vargas expects his team’s depth to be a benefit throughout the season, with the competitiveness for positions in the starting lineup leading players to bring their best to each practice. With such an abundance of talent, hopes are high for a return to the national championship finals for the first time in three years.
“My first two years here, we finished third and fifth in the nation,” Vargas said. “We always want to improve from last year, and this is the strongest team I’ve coached at AUM. If the players work hard, and stay committed to the team, we should definitely be in a position to win a title.”
The Warhawks begin their season this Friday at Emmanuel, with matches beginning at 1 p.m.
Source: AUM Sports Information Director