(Photo by Mark Philbrick/BYU Photo)
Combining only two returning players with seven incoming freshmen, the BYU men's tennis team looked young and seemingly inexperienced as it opened the 2007-08 season. However, several newcomers rose to the occasion, helping the Cougars secure a No. 71 final national ranking and an appearance in the semifinal match at the Mountain West Conference Tournament.
"With a such a young team, including seven freshmen, we had a very good season," said BYU head coach Brad Pearce. "I think we showed remarkable improvement that was not only noticed by our own coaching staff, but also amongst our fellow coaches. [Those coaches] were impressed by the improvements our individual players and team made throughout the course of the year."
Leading the Cougars at the No. 1 singles position was lone senior Jonathan Sanchez, who faced nine of the country's top-ranked competitors throughout the season. Sanchez ended his collegiate career ranked No. 24 in the ITA Mountain Region.
With four freshmen playing in BYU's singles lineup, the newcomers quickly learned the ropes of collegiate competition. Thomas Shubert earned MWC Freshman of the Year honors for his performance at BYU's No. 2 position and ranked ninth in the region in both singles and doubles with freshman Daniel Hwang.
Hwang earned accolades of his own, recording a team-high 27 singles wins in his first season, including a 6-4, 6-4 win over his No. 54 SDSU opponent to clinch the team win for BYU, its first win over a ranked team so far in the season.
Entering the fall season, Sanchez teamed up with sophomore Cassidy Mears in doubles play, going on to post an impressive 9-2 record, including a finals appearance at the So Cal Intercollegiate Championships and doubles titles at the Utah Invitational and Utah Fall Tennis Classic. As the spring season rolled around, the duo looked poised to make an impressive run in the national spotlight.
Mears and Sanchez competed at the top doubles position for the Cougars as spring got underway, but BYU found itself struggling early, failing to win the doubles point in its first four matches. In mid-February Pearce and first-year assistant coach Patrick Fisher juggled the doubles combinations, separating Mears and Sanchez in an effort to strengthen the entire team. The veterans selflessly accepted their new roles as BYU went on to win 11 of its matches when claiming the doubles point.
"We knew we had some talented players this season, but the big challenge was getting everyone to understand how important it was for team success," said Pearce. "At the end of the season everyone was 100-percent invested in the team outcome. I was really impressed that the players were able to subordinate their individual selves for the good of the team."
Back-to-back double-headers in March tested the physical and mental strength of the team as it battled through the long days. On March 7th the Cougars pulled out a narrow 4-3 win over Cal Poly, then overcame sickness and physical exhaustion to come away with a strong 6-1 victory over Montana State. The following week BYU defeated Pacific and Portland to maintain its undefeated home record to that point in the season.
"The doubleheaders were really important for us," said Pearce. "Those were key matches where individuals recognized that they could push themselves physically, mentally and emotionally more than they ever had before."
The Cougars struggled in early MWC play, including a close 4-3 loss to UNLV in its conference opener. BYU ended the regular season with a 2-4 league record.
Before heading to the conference tournament, the Cougars hosted No. 65 UC Santa Barbara. Despite a tough loss to in-state rival Utah the week prior, the team bounced back and secured a convincing 6-1 win over the ranked Gauchos.
Entering the MWC tournament as the fifth seed, the Cougars avenged their loss to UNLV earlier in the season, upsetting the fourth-seeded Rebels 4-2 in the opening round. Freshman AJ Young continued the consistency, which he became known for throughout the season, by clinching the win for BYU.
Advancing to the semifinals, the Cougars suffered a season-ending loss to TCU, who went on to win the MWC crown.
"I thought it was very satisfying to go to the conference tournament and avenge a loss against UNLV," said Pearce. "We also played TCU with much more spirit, spirit and belief than we had earlier in the season. Every coach wants to their team to finish the season playing their best, and I think we did that."
The Cougars' strong finish put them back in the national rankings and earned them a No. 5 regional ranking.
With a year of experience under their belts, Pearce and his young team look to maintain the success they found in the 2008 season while continuing to build national prominence.