PARKLAND – The Pacific Lutheran men's tennis team opens the 2014 spring season this weekend with a lot of new faces and some lofty aspirations.
The Lutes have moved up two spots in the Northwest Conference standings each of the past three years, climbing from seventh in 2011 to fifth in 2012 and third last year. In their third year under head coach Rocky Poulin, the Lutes will hope to solidify their position among the top teams in the NWC with a young roster that includes only one senior and nine underclassmen.
"We have a lot of fresh new faces," Poulin said. "Despite a great season last year, it's a fresh start this year."
Pacific Lutheran wrapped up the 2013 season ranked 14th in the West Region and made it to the final week of the regular season with only one conference loss before twice falling to a Whitman team en route to its fourth consecutive NWC title.
"Those are all great highlights for our young team," Poulin said.
Now the Lutes look to continue that program trajectory with a mostly-untested cast, as only two of PLU's 2013 top six return this season. Neal Berg – the lone senior on the team – and junior Sam Angel will share captain duties as Berg returns to the team after taking last season off.
"[Neal will] be a great asset for us, because he's had a lot of tennis experience through the years," Poulin said, while mentioning that Angel is "very excited about the position he has on the team."
Spencer Herron will also return to the team this season after missing last year. He will be a junior this season, giving PLU three upperclassmen to go with four sophomores and five freshmen.
"We're excited about his return to the team," Poulin said of Herron. "He's a big hitter and has a lot of doubles experience."
Jake Yannello leads the group of sophomores after posting a 10-2 singles record last season. He opens the year as the Lutes' No. 3 singles player and No. 2 doubles player. Brandon Bulaclac finished the year 3-2, while Jeremy Marsh and Hayden McCartney also return for their second season at PLU.
"When you have the returners that we have, be it that we're fairly young, we've got a good nucleus that we're building on," Poulin said. "We're excited about how this team is going to look this year. We may have a learning curve, but the guys are self-motivated, high-character, hardworking guys, and the coaching staff just absolutely loves that."
The 2014 freshman class features newcomers Peter Koessler, James Okubo, Sam Stadter, Jimmie Stone and Note Wolch. Poulin expects Stadter and Okubo to step right into the lineup and perform for the Lutes.
"Those two are kind of our key contributors as freshmen this year in that they're currently in the top six," Poulin said.
Beyond the student-athletes, Poulin also added two new assistant coaches to form a five-man coaching staff. Taylor Dickey steps right into the leadership role after playing for the Lutes the past four years and serving as a team captain last season.
"Taylor brings a lot of valuable knowledge about the history of the program, the traditions that we have, the values we have, and he's working great with our coaching staff," Poulin said.
Local USTA player and high school coach Ryan Paul, who is the head pro at PLU's "home court" of Sprinker Recreation Center, will round out the staff for PLU. The two newcomers join a pair of former PLU head tennis coaches who now serve as assistants, Craig Hamilton and Mike Benson.
"We have a lot more eyes out there, a lot more knowledge out there in terms of the coaching staff to help these young guys," Poulin said. "It's just fun to be out there with the coaches and all that they bring to the table."
Pacific Lutheran opens the season this weekend right at home at the Sprinker USTA. The exhibition event will allow PLU to go against local USTA players from Sprinker. Warmups begin at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, with the tournament starting up at 2 p.m.
"It's a great way to kind of give back to the community, get the local tennis community involved in our tennis program," Poulin said.
From there it's right into the Northwest Conference schedule, as PLU will head down to Oregon next weekend to take on George Fox and Lewis & Clark. George Fox finished second in the conference standings last season and ended PLU's season in the 2013 NWC semifinals.
"It's a tough first week in conference play, but the guys, I think, are more than ready to show that we're going to be contenders this year," Poulin said. "Even though we lost some players from last year, we'll keep the Lute tennis tradition high here."