Men's tennis aims for postseason run behind veteran cast of returners
COLCHESTER, Vt. - Only one regular was lost from the Saint Michael's College men's tennis team's 2010-11 lineup, but the Purple Knights nevertheless find themselves approaching a postseason berth for the first time in two years this spring following a successful fall campaign, and are on the cusp of topping the .500 mark for the first time in four seasons.
"Having a split season between the fall and spring, we've begun to realize the players gain more experience because the school year has mini seasons, in effect," said seventh-year head coach Kevin Lizzo, who is one victory short of tying for second in program history in career coaching triumphs. "My sophomores and juniors have had almost four seasons, so they've played quite a bit and know to expect."
After going 3-8 overall and in the Northeast-10 Conference last school year, and missing the postseason tournament for just the third time since it became a team championship in 1999-2000, the Purple Knights were 4-1 overall and 3-1 in the league during the fall before resuming their campaign with a setback to regional power Merrimack College on Feb. 25. Lizzo partially attributes the recent improvement to an emphasis on competitive matches during practice.
"The drills are helping, but there's no simulation for match play," said Lizzo, who has incorporated match play into practice sessions. "I need good tennis players, but I need great match players; there's a big difference. The guys are playing really well right now. It might not be a full best-of-three match during practice, but they're playing competitive points."
Seniors Sam Cieplicki (South Burlington, Vt./New Hampton School) and Brian Healey (Ware, Mass./Belchertown) are the team's captains, with Healey completing his fourth year of college tennis and Cieplicki in his second season. Healey has primarily played No. 3 and 4 singles during his tenure, already posting a career-best four wins as a senior, while five of his eight career doubles victories have been from the third position. Cieplicki has posted a 7-7 singles mark as a Purple Knight, moving up to the second and third spots for his final season after appearing at the final three spots during his junior year. For the spring leg of the schedule, Cieplicki will play No. 2 and 3, and Healey No. 4.
Junior Kenny Vassallo (Wilmington, Mass./Wilmington) is 4-2 during singles action from No. 5 and 6 this year while playing primarily second doubles for the first time, anchoring a five-man Class of 2013 that boasts a pair of two-sport athletes. Classmate Eric Parziale (Pinehurst, N.C./Pinecrest), who is 2-2 in individual play while going 2-0 at No. 3 doubles, is also a member of the men's soccer team. Parziale is in his second season with the squad, having pulled double duty with both programs in the fall. He will play second and third singles this spring, while Vassallo should appear at No. 5.
Junior Petr Soustal (Unicov, Czech Republic/Gymnazium Unicov), also a men's ice hockey forward competing in his second year of tennis, has made all three career singles appearances at No. 2, while all seven of his doubles contests have occurred in the top spot. Soustal's availability will depend upon his health following the grueling ice hockey season. Chris Moskal (Springfield, Mass./Cathedral), who has played mostly at the fourth and fifth singles spots and the lower two doubles positions, is studying abroad after playing during the fall. Junior Lyle Nichols (Washington, Conn./Shepaug Valley) joined the team this spring for his first season of college tennis and should compete for time in the sixth singles slot.
Nick Bosco (Glastonbury, Conn./East Catholic) headlines the sophomore class, having played No. 1 singles and doubles during his entire career thus far. He has gone 9-8 in singles play, including 4-2 this school year. Classmates Chris Allen (Springfield, Mass./Cathedral) and Tom Brahm (Marlborough, Conn./Xavier) have teamed in doubles for much of the past two years, combining for four wins at No. 3 while also seeing time in the second position. Brahm has only three career singles appearances to his credit, while Allen has appeared only in doubles.
"The three big guns up top are Nick, Eric and Sam," said the head coach. "I think things will shift around with the lower three, and that's part of the beauty, that there is competition within the lineup, guys pushing each other."
Freshmen Mike Logue (Norwell, Mass./Norwell) and Billy Wood (Wayne, Pa./Home Schooled) join Nichols as newcomers to the program, with Logue a spring addition who is working to improve his consistency before moving into the lineup. Wood did not appear in any matches during the fall but is slated to hold down the No. 6 singles slot this spring.
Bosco and Parziale are slated to team at No. 1 doubles, while Healey and Vassallo will appear in the second position. Allen and Brahm should continue pairing at No. 3, as Lizzo said the duo has shown potential while contending closely with the Purple Knights' top pairing.
"It's a different animal in doubles; you have to be a lot more precise," said Lizzo. "In singles you take your time, feel out an opponent; in doubles you have to take it to them, make some serves, make some returns, hit a volley. Some guys are focusing more on doubles, some guys are focusing more on singles. Having players focus on one part of tennis, singles or doubles, gets more guys into the action, which is awesome. Many times players come out of high school never playing doubles. Some freshmen might be really good players but not know a thing about doubles."
The Purple Knights' remaining run of six regular-season matches begins on March 24 with a contest versus Adelphi University. Regionally-ranked Southern New Hampshire University and Bentley University loom on March 27 and April 1, respectively. The postseason tournament kicks off on April 17.
Saint Michael's is within reach of earning seven conference wins for just the third time in the last 26 years, and Lizzo realizes how meaningful a deep run in the NE-10 Tournament could be for a program that last won a postseason match during 2007-08 season, and what it will take for the team to achieve its goals.
"It's understood that everyone needs to work hard and keep improving, and see what kind of noise we can make as a team," said Lizzo. "Everyone knows there are some tough teams in the conference, but we've been improving little by little. We don't want to be that seventh or eighth seed in the playoffs, we want to at least be in the middle. That's our goal, we want to get into the playoffs and see how far we can go."