SALISBURY, Md. – Student-athletes love to compete. For the members of the Salisbury University men's and women's tennis teams, the talent is abundant and that means competing will not just come in matches and in preseason to see if they can earn a spot in the lineup, but also in practices throughout the season as no spot in the lineup will be guaranteed throughout the year.
The women bring back a host of seniors from last year's lineup that will lead the way, but an influx of new faces with talent will push for playing time right from the start. The men's team lost more to graduation, but those that had been waiting in the wings, along with some newcomers will all battle for their chances on the court.
Each team had an opportunity to see some of its players in action when the teams hosted the non-NCAA sanctioned Sea Gull Open Feb. 8-10, and while the starting lineups will be finalized before each team starts their season in the next week, those lineups will be fluid throughout 2013.
After a 6-1 Capital Athletic Conference campaign in 2012, the women advanced to the CAC title match, falling to the University of Mary Washington. The Sea Gulls (11-10 overall in 2012) look stronger throughout the lineup as every player that competed last year is back in uniform in 2013 and has improved significantly.
"Our three seniors are leaders, and they're great in terms of saying the right things and doing the right things," Head Coach Randy Halfpap said. "It's good for our younger players to lean on them for advice or just seeing the way things are supposed to be done."
Poppe, who played at the top of the lineup last season, has been a team captain since her sophomore year and will take that role again, and is not afraid to speak her mind when needed.
"We haven't had many vocal leaders on the women's side," Halfpap said. "I told her during her sophomore year, when you graduate I want to be able to say, 'She was the best captain I've ever had.' She's exceeded my expectations with that. There's stuff that I think about and she's already done it."
Freshman Natalie Savage was expected to open the season in the No. 3 slot in the lineup, but earned a chance to open her career at No. 2 following strong play in the fall and at the Sea Gull Open.
With similar powerful playing styles, Poppe and Savage, who are both from New Jersey and have played together before, begin the year as the top doubles team. After advancing to the final match of the ITA Fall Southeast Regional Championship, the pair will open the season as the No. 4 ranked team in the Atlantic South Region.
Iosue and sophomore Roxanne Alban are expected to open the season at No. 3 and No. 4 in the singles lineup, respectively. Iosue played consistently at the top of the lineup last year, finishing with an 11-9 record in singles play and has made big improvements, as has each player, coming into 2013. Iosue and Alban will open as the No. 2 doubles team, as well.
Sophomore Katie Youlios will begin the year in the No. 5 singles spot and returning senior Handlin will open the year at No. 6. But Handlin and Youlios will be pushed by sophomore Allison Lutz and junior Jessica Babyak, who played on the team in 2011 and returns after a year away.
For the men and the women, the CAC goal is to win the title, which means taking down Mary Washington. The SU women, who enter the year ranked No. 16 in the Atlantic South Region, have been close in recent years, but have not been able to get over the hump. They feel that 2013 could their chance to break through.
"In the past, we always sort of hoped we would beat them" Halfpap said. "It would be close and maybe we could do it. Last year we felt like we were as good, if not better, in doubles, but they pulled away in singles matches. Now, with the addition of Natalie Savage, and everyone improving, the players are not just talking about how good it would be, but how good it will be. Mary Washington has a good recruiting class and a lot of talent, but come match day, you never know what could happen."
The men's team will reload this season having graduated three starters from 2012, when the team was 5-2 in CAC play and advanced to the conference championship match.
"I'm excited about the youth part of it," Halfpap said. "And not necessarily thinking just this year, but down the road as well. I like the personality of the team – the competitiveness and challenging each other, there aren't these big gaps in talent. We have eleven guys and the gap from our number-three player to number eleven is not big at all."
Sophomore Daniel Albers, the CAC Rookie of the Year last year, will be the Sea Gulls' No. 1 singles player when the year begins against Hampden-Sydney next week.
Freshman Eric Spangler will open the year as the No. 2 singles player. Spangler is a highly-talented player with a lot of experience in junior tennis, Halfpap said. Spangler has played in many high-pressure matches and is expected to have no problems handling the pressure of playing near the top of the lineup.
Albers and Spangler, who will pair up as the top doubles team, have similar personalities on the court, remaining calm and unfazed by the situation.
"We've had teams in the past few years, with some of our older players, who were more rambunctious," Halfpap said. "This year we have more of a subdued team, but a team that's serious and easier to control in that aspect."
Juniors Demetri Vrahnos and Adam Goldberger look to open the season in the third and fourth singles spots. Vrahnos has spent the past two seasons battling injuries and will be a welcomed addition to the lineup, though not a newcomer to the team, having played just five total matches last season.
Goldberger will return to a familiar position, having played in the No. 3 and 4 spots throughout last year.
Sophomore Nick Mancuso, who played in all but two matches last season, juniors Paul Berryman and Shane Gunther, who both saw limited action, but were undefeated in 2012, and freshman Matthew McGaffney will all battle for the final starting positions.
"When I say it, it feels like it's this guy and this guy and this guy," Halfpap said. "But I'm not just saying it, I try to get it through to those players that all eleven have a legitimate chance to get into the lineup."
The Salisbury teams will open up with strong competition right out the gate this season. The women open tonight at Towson University while the men begin on Feb. 23 against Hampden-Sydney College in a neutral-site match at Mary Washington. Each team will play the nationally-ranked Eagles on the road during the weekend of Feb. 23 as well – much earlier than in years past.
"In the past we've started against teams that didn't challenge us as much as we've needed to," Halfpap said. "I wanted to test ourselves right away and see where we are."
Things do not let up throughout the season with matches in the CAC as well as a trip to Texas to take on North Central Texas, Austin, LeTourneau and Centenary.
The CAC tournament begins in late April for the young, but competitive Sea Gull squads.