After two consecutive losing seasons, new head coach and former PLNU tennis player Curt Wheeler may be the missing link for the men’s tennis team. The former assistant coach will be taking the reins from Richard Hills, who coached the team for 35 years.
Wheeler built an impressive career as a player, accruing the fourth-highest match-winning percentage in one season of school history along with a NAIA All-American nomination in 2009. He said retaining Hills’ coaching focus on the doubles aspect is important for both the men’s and women’s teams.
“One thing coach [Richard] Hills did a great job of was teaching doubles,” said Wheeler. “And I am on the same page as him in terms of the love of doubles and how important it is for our teams. When he was coaching me as a player, it was always a big focus for us – winning the doubles points – because when we play, we usually start out with that, and so if we can get a lead after those matches it can give us momentum going into singles.”
Last year, the team had four seniors who composed half of the roster. The team is divided between lowerclassmen and upperclassmen again for the 2015 season.
Junior Martin Blaho, who transferred from Bratislava, Slovakia, said the addition of Wheeler and a youthful team brings everyone together.
“I think it’s good, because there’s much more unity to the team,” said Blaho. “Everyone came at the same time, so that makes us stick together better.”
Blaho said he plans to set an example for the younger players while utilizing Wheeler’s ACE mantra—attitude, concentration and effort.
“It’s something that coach talks to us about a lot and it’s something that if the key to those components are good then you shouldn’t have a problem,” said Blaho. “So that’s the biggest thing. I try to lead by example through my attitude, effort and concentration because I know for the younger guys sometimes if they’re having a bad day, it’s easy to fall into being frustrated.”
Many Sea Lions are making their freshman debuts this season including Grant and Jack Alston, CJ Erion, Blake Smith and Andre Staab, a recruit from Germany.
Erion said the team has been going out of their way to make the transition from high school to college comfortable for them.
“Well right off the bat we did a lot of team bonding activities,” said Erion. “It’s going well. We’re all getting along, playing well. I feel like in practice we do a good job of helping each other out, keeping each other going and playing well. I am sure that will correlate to matches. I am pretty excited to play with these guys.”
While the team has been able to bond on the field, this younger group of players will have to strengthen their mental game in order to prepare for Division II level of play, said Wheeler.
“The fun part about coaching underclassmen –and freshman – is you really get a chance to mold them in attitude, game style, mentality and strategy,” said Wheeler. “For me, that’s one thing I really enjoy as a coach, is trying to mold their minds into good tennis players. Because in tennis specifically, you got to be mentally tough. The ones who are mentally tough are far more successful than the ones that are usually more talented. So for me that’s always a challenge with the younger class—trying to get that mental aspect ready to compete day in and day out.”
Wheeler said the team looks to minimize the amount of injuries they had to endure last season, which played a crucial role in their 7-17 record.
“I know last year Martin [Blaho] was hurt for a good chunk of the season, and we lost, I believe, four or five matches that he didn’t play in,” said Wheeler. “So when one of your best players isn’t playing in a college tennis match, it could be the difference between losing 4-5 or winning 6-3. So having him injured last year was especially tough.”
The Sea Lions will begin their season at home on Feb. 4 as they take on the 18th ranked team in the nation, UC San Diego.
The women’s tennis team has had much success the past six seasons with a 79-42 team record and two NAIA championship runner-up finishes in 2011 and 2012.
Last year, the Sea Lions had a team record of 13-13, finishing 8th out of 12 teams in the PacWest Conference. Many of the matches came down to the wire, said new Head Coach Curt Wheeler.
“Last season was a very good season, and just like the guy’s side, we had multiple matches that we lost 4-5,” said Wheeler, a past player at PLNU. “They came down to a few points here or there. If we would’ve played the bigger points a little better, we could’ve easily been 15-11.”
Wheeler said 2014 alumnus’s Maika Adair, Hope Penner and Sharon Relbstein will be replaced with a good recruiting class with high expectations.
“It was going to be extremely difficult to replace them being seniors and having experience, and how good they were of players,” said Wheeler. “But this year we got some new freshmen and a transfer that I think have the capability to replace the players from last year and hopefully even a step above. So I think we have a great chance of improving on the record we had last year.”
Junior Hillary Ramage said Wheeler’s coaching style works well for the young and inexperienced players, differing from previous coach Richard Hills.
“I think Coach Hills was definitely more ‘old school’ than Curt [Wheeler],” said Ramage. “I kind of feel like Curt pushes us a little bit more just because he’s recently played for a college team, so he kind of knows what it takes. I think it’s easier to relate to him just because he’s younger and understands how to be a student-athlete now instead of when coach Hills was [in college].”
Firsthand experience has created a rapport between the coach and the players this year. Senior Preethika Venugopal – who played under Hills for three years – said Wheeler has placed importance on winning the doubles matches for both women’s and men’s teams during practices.
“Having a different coach definitely makes this team different from the other ones,” said Venugopal. “I feel like we work on doubles a lot more too now, which is really nice because Curt is a really good doubles player. So it’s nice to have his influence on how our doubles is working now; I think that’s going to be really beneficial.”
With the season opener looming ahead and a 10-person team composed of six underclassmen,Wheeler said the main goal for the team season remains to stick to the ACE mindset, which aided him during his career as a player.
“I think for me it’s a very personal philosophy in terms of how I played tennis, how I competed and how I coached in the past too,” said Wheeler. “It worked well for me, and I don’t try to make it anymore complicated than that. I try to make things very simple for my players and myself, because if it’s simple and clear, then it’s just a matter of going out and executing.”
The young Sea Lion squad will face rival Azusa Pacific University at home on Feb. 6.