BUCKHANNON— The West Virginia Wesleyan tennis program will undergo quite the makeover this fall, as the campus prepares to host their first home tennis matches in three seasons. The construction of a new six-court, lighted facility has certainly brought about a new level of anticipation for the Bobcat tennis teams heading into this year's campaign.
However, it is a different element of newness that has head coach Marc Walters itching for the season to begin. There will be no fewer than ten newcomers to the men's team, and three additions to the women's squad, and that has the fifth-year head coach as excited for this fall as he has been for any of his previous seasons in Buckhannon.
Joining the men are freshmen Lukas Laipold (Austria), Mario Borovcanin (Serbia), Marko Golac (Croatia), Pierre-Olivier Bedard (Montreal, Canada), Rodrigo Lehmann Michael (Brazil), Bryce Williams (Bridgeport, W. Va.) and Nicholas Cain (Clarksburg Liberty, W. Va.), Thomas McIntosh (Charlesotn, W. Va.) and transfers Gonzalo Munoz (Spain) and Marc Van den Boom (Germany).
"It's a really deep pool of talent that we have joining us for both teams," said Walters of his third recruiting class. "We have such a good mix of guys coming into the program this fall, a group that satisfies our needs on the court and meets the demands of the team academically," added the veteran coach, who tallied his 550th career win last spring.
"When you combine the talent coming in with the fact that we graduated only one player from last year's 19-win NCAA Regional men's team, I know we are going to have many more options to explore with the lineup."
Charleston native Thomas McIntosh, who led George Washington High School to another West
Virginia State championship, will be joined by nine other new Bobcats this fall, making this the largest recruiting class during Walters' tenure in Buckhannon. McIntosh, who signed in November, played first singles for the Patriots and was the state runner-up at the position this past season.
Other impact freshman figure to be in the mix for playing time, as the class has a wide skill set, and some physical size working in their favor, which should give the 'Cats more power to work with leading into the indoor segments of their schedule.
Lukas Laipold, who signed an NLI with Wesleyan this spring, relies on clean ball-striking and counter-punching ground strokes which he uses to pin his opponent on the baseline. combined with a strong serve and return game, Walters feels Laipold offers an indoor and hard court presence that the Bobcats lacked at times last season.
Mario Borovcanin also has good size working for him, and at 6-2 should give added power to the doubles lineup as well as a mature singles game that puts him in the hunt for a singles spot. A late commitment for the Bobcats, Borovcanin comes from a high level program in Belgrade and Walters believes he is physically ready for the college game.
Marko Golac is another seasoned tournament player who has the type of grinder game Walters loves in his team. Strong off both wings, the wiry right-hander has worked on developing an attack game this past year, and his game is poised to jump a level with increase physical training and strength.
Clarksburg area players Bryce Williams and Nicholas Cain both contributed to their high school programs and similarly excelled in the classroom. The pair has trained locally with Morgantown tennis programs run by Mike Tompkins at Ridgeview Racquet Club, as well as area tournaments and regional high school play. Walters feels they will need some seasoning to get to a level to challenge the starters, but they will bring depth and intensity to the roster and practices while they grow their game.
Rodrigo Lehmann Michael and Pierre-Oliver Bedard are similarly working to gaining that level, according to Walters, but their upside includes international tournament and travel experience as well as state rankings. Bedard has been steadily rising in the Quebec Tennis Rankings and at 6-2, has a chance to see his game evolve quickly on the hard courts of college. Lehmann Michael may need more seasoning as he was clay court oriented back in Brazil, and his style relies more on finesse. But Walters is excited about his energy and willingness to be coached up at this level.
The final two new Bobcats are from varied, backgrounds, and each brings a different strength to the table. Gonzalo Munoz, who will be a junior, spent the past two seasons competing at Division I Tennessee Tech and then NAIA power Graceland (IA) College.
When Graceland unexpectedly dropped the tennis program this past spring, Munoz chose Wesleyan to continue his studies. The steady Spaniard reminds Walters of current player Nathan Sabate, as he relies on a fitness and long points to win his matches.
Van den Boom, who transfers from a college in his native Germany, will be considered a freshman and have four years to compete. The explosive, 6-1 righty has an athletic game, and he pressures with his forehand and serve, making him a natural doubles player and court presence.
"On paper, it kind of wears you out looking at the roster," said Walters. "But the reality of the season is that we still lack size, and we graduate at least six guys this coming spring, so establishing some competition and finding players that can step in is essential for us to keep improving."
The Bobcats are coming off a 10th consecutive NCAA tournament berth, and a 19-win campaign that included a share of the MEC regular season title. All six starters from last year's squad return this fall, including all-MEC selections Sabate, Jacobo Rendon, Ramon Rodriguez, Ferran Berga and Timothy Stephens. Stephens, Berga and Rodriguez each won 20 singles matches in 2016, while Sabate and Pedro Nassar both topped 15 for the year.
The team kicks off its season with the Bobcat Challenger on Sept. 2-4 in Buckhannon, before heading to West Liberty for the Hilltopper Classic on Sept. 9-10. That event will feature five of the top seven teams from last year in the Atlantic Region.
Marc Van den Boom