Cal men’s tennis to start season with experienced roster

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Maddie Khamnei/File

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Cal men’s tennis is ready to rebound into the 2018-19 season with an experienced roster after a previous season full of tough matches and untried players. Last year, the Bears went 12-10 overall, but only 3-4 in conference with losses to Stanford, UCLA, USC and Oregon and wins over Arizona, Utah and Washington.

The team also lost both marquee matchups against Stanford in the “Big Slams,” played both at home and away, which the Cardinal took 4-1 and 4-0 respectively.

The end of last season was unlikely to sit well with anyone. Just five days after losing their home finisher to Oregon, the Bears faced them for a rematch in the PAC-12 Championship tournament. They lost the nail-biter 4-3 to make a painful first round exit. Two weeks later, the Bears bounced back into the NCAA tournament with a decisive upset over North Carolina State before losing to the talented Texas Longhorns.

For Cal men’s tennis director Peter Wright, last season was all about growth both as a team and among individual players.

“A lot of learning going on last year,” Wright said. “I tried to give them some experiences that were challenging. We played Illinois on the road, we played Michigan on the road — two very difficult indoor matches.”

Since the roster last season was very young, there is nowhere for the Bears to go but up. Freshmen made up the majority of the team, filling seven of the 11 spots along with two sophomores and only two seniors.

The team is feeling the loss of former seniors J.T. Nishimura and Billy Griffith who consistently played on the top courts and were frequent doubles partners.

“That will be tough in a sense to replace them, but, at the same time, it gives a lot of the younger guys an opportunity to step up and play good tennis,” said junior Bjorn Hoffmann.

Though they aren’t on the roster anymore, both players return this year as assistants to the team while finishing their degrees at Cal.

Many, including Wright, are looking forward to seeing the experience gained by the young players last year manifest on the court this season. The seven former freshmen were part of the top recruiting class in the nation for 2017.

“Last year the emphasis was on getting experience for these guys,” Wright said. “I challenged them a lot the first year.”

This offseason, the team picked up junior transfer Mert Zincirli from the University of San Francisco who joins veterans Bjorn Hoffman and Dominic Barretto as the only juniors, and the oldest players, on the team. Cal also signed Yuta Kikuchi from Japan as the team’s only freshman.

The Bears will be starting their 2018-19 season at the Silverado Collegiate Invitational, an annual tournament held in Napa Valley that is entering its seventh year. Along with Cal, the University of San Francisco, Oklahoma State University, Liberty University, Pepperdine University, the University of Hawaii at Manoa, UNLV and the University of Tulsa will be sending players this year.

The Bears are predicted to do well at the invitational. In his debut as a Bear, Yuta Kikuchi will be joining  Hoffman and sophomores Jackson Suh and Ben Draper in representing Cal.

“It’s a solid field of some mid-major schools, and I expect our guys to have a very positive experience there,” Wright said.

Wright, who is entering his 26th year of leading Cal’s mens tennis program, is also very optimistic about the future of the program.

“We have a long runway. One of the nice things about this season, we have no seniors this year,” said the hopeful Wright. “We felt we are building towards something very special in the coming years.”

The fall semester is mostly about development of the players at individual tournaments before team matchups and conference play starts in the spring. Next semester, the Bears will be challenged right away with road matchups against Florida State and the University of Virginia, and the potential of another road match against Texas A&M, to truly see how much they’ve grown.

Trilok Reddy covers men’s tennis. Contact him at [email protected].