By BUDDY HUGHES firstname.lastname@example.org
College of Coastal Georgia's men's tennis team made the program's biggest mark on the national stage last season by reaching the NAIA tournament quarterfinals. Now, it falls to new coach Zack Rogers to keep the momentum going on the men's side, and build up a women's team that played with just four players last season.
Rogers was hired last summer to replace former coach Kemper Baker, who departed to take the same role at Methodist University in North Carolina. Coastal didn't have to look far to hire Rogers, who was leading the programs at former conference rival Dalton State.
"Being in the Southern States (Athletic) Conference the last two years and having a good relationship with Kemper, I feel like I knew the guys team and girls team pretty well," Rogers said. "I feel like we mesh together pretty well. We've been able to bring in a couple of new players on both squads. It's just been a process. In all honesty, I think it's going to take a couple of years to get my systems in place, but the process is going the way I like to do things."
Josh Banks, one of the senior leaders on the men's team, said Rogers is a good fit at Coastal.
"We've had to make some adjustments but it's been great," Banks said. "We miss Kemper obviously but Zack is a good addition to the group."
The men's team enters the season ranked sixth in the preseason top 25 and is the favorite to win the SSAC championship this year.
"We've got a lot of respect on the guys side," Rogers said. "I think it's the first time Coastal has ever been top 10 in preseason. We were picked to win the conference — lofty goals and expectations — but it's a real possibility. We've got a talented team, and with the departure of Auburn-Montgomery and Dalton State, I definitely think the opportunity is there."
This year's edition of the Mariners features a mix of returning players and new standouts. Banks and Rhan Burton, the team's only returning seniors, were also all-conference players last year. Joining them from last year's team is sophomore Ben Dolan.
The new names in the mix are Kenta Naka, a transfer from Savannah College of Art and Design who was SCAD's No. 1 player, and five freshmen including Bautista Chiaradia from Argentina and Adrian Farina from Spain, who Rogers called "very talented freshmen."
Banks said the new additions were "awesome guys" that fit in well.
Coastal's top competition in the SSAC is expected to be William Carey, who got three of the nine first-place votes in the preseason conference poll. The other six went to Coastal. The two teams play early in the season, Feb. 25 at William Carey.
"That will basically tell you where the season is going to go," Rogers said. "If we pull off that match, I think it will be just maintaining focus to win the conference title."
Nationally, the top dog is still Georgia Gwinnett. The Grizzlies are the three-time defending champions, and Rogers has said there as good as a top 10 NCAA Division I program. Other teams that Coastal will be jockeying for position against include Xavier, Keiser University, Northwest Ohio and Lindsey Wilson.
"Realistically, you come in every year with aspirations to win a national title," Rogers said. "I think where we are in the NAIA right now, if we can finish top 5, that would be a great year."
Banks is hopeful that an improved focus on fitness will help the Mariners live up to being the favorites and help them advance deeper into nationals this season after some of the team struggled with cramping at last year's tournament.
"Last year, we struggled a little bit with fitness," Banks said. "So this year, hopefully the early morning fitness sessions will get us over the line and into the quarters and semifinals."
The senior is also hoping to go out with a bang for his final year at Coastal.
"To just win the conference alone would be huge," Banks said. "If we can push on the semis and even make the finals at national, that would just be unbelievable for Rham and I's last year."
The women's team is in a different boat from the men's team. The Coastal women struggled with depth last year, having just four players at their disposal.
Replenishing the roster has been top on Rogers' to-do list.
"The big thing on the girls side is just getting depth," Rogers said. "We were very fortunate to get Samantha Sepe, who was at the University of Central Florida last year. She's a very strong player and we were able to pick her up. We've got some pretty talented freshmen with Paige (DeLaPerriere) and Maddie (Madeline Garner)."
Sepe said that Coastal is "very different" from Central Florida, but she has enjoyed her time here and thinks the newcomers combined with returning players Daniella Caruso, Samantha Lasslett and Lindsey Lawing can surprise some people.
"I really like the team, and I think we have a good thing going," Sepe said.
After struggling to a 3-13 record last season, Sepe said it's important for the Mariners to treat last season like a bad point in a match and put it out of their heads.
"Honestly, you can't focus on past points, you have to keep moving forward and let the past go," Sepe said. "That's the only way you're going to improve. Now we're just trying to let it go — the past is the past — and now we have a better thing going for us. It's time to focus on the future, and I think everybody understands that."
If everything goes right, Rogers said the Mariner women have the potential to crack into the top half of the conference and maybe even make the national tournament.
"We're picked sixth in the conference, which based on where we finished last year, is a decent amount of respect given to the program," Rogers said. "As long as we do what we need to do, we should finish fifth. You've got four teams ranked ahead of us that went to the national tournament. I think if we can play our best tennis those weekends (against William Carey and Mobile) and pull off a win, you will see us ranked for the rest of the season and potentially making the national tournament."
Both squads begin their season today at home with a doubleheader. Coastal faces Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College at 9 a.m. and Armstrong State at 3 p.m.
Photo by Bobby Haven of The News
College of Coastal Georgia's Josh Banks returns a shot during practice Tuesday at the college's tennis courts.