Thursday, January 14, 2010

USC Upstate Men’s Tennis, Mission Not Impossible

MACON, Ga. – With the release of the tennis preseason polls on Wednesday, the USC Upstate men’s tennis team lingered near the top of the Atlantic Sun rankings. Over the last four years, there remain three players who went through the transition from Division II to Division I and represent the heart of the Spartans’ lineups. They may not be superstars or the top players on the team, but they are the engine that has driven the team to many dual meet wins.

Renzo Airaldi, Jack Roux and Javier Tori have made USC Upstate’s transition from a Division II to Division I athletics program a smooth one. These three players make up the winningest senior class in school history as their names scatter across Spartan record books. Also, before helping USC Upstate make the transition, Airaldi, Roux and Tori mark the second recruiting class under head coach Alessandro De Marzo and the first that really showcase De Marzo's skills as a recruiter. All three players hail from South America, with both Airaldi and Tori from De Marzo’s hometown of Lima, Peru, and Roux from Punta Arenas, Chile.

Tori stands as the Spartans’ all-time wins leader, ranking first in school history with 126 combined wins and 60 singles wins and third with 66 doubles wins. A two-time ITA Scholar-Athlete, Tori’s 45 combined wins stand as second-best in school history, while his 24 singles wins rank third. Tori owns the distinction as the only player in school history to post back-to-back 20-win seasons in both singles and doubles play and the only one ever to post three consecutive 20-win double seasons.

In 2009, Airaldi earned All-Atlantic Sun Second-Team Doubles honors with Tori after finishing 19-3 in doubles play and posting a 13-3 mark at No. 1 and a 6-0 mark at No. 2. Airaldi ranks fourth in school history with 112 combined wins, ninth with 48 singles wins and fourth with 64 doubles wins.

Roux ranks seventh with 109 combined wins, second with 57 singles wins and seventh with 52 doubles wins. An All-Atlantic Sun Second Team selection in both singles and doubles play in 2009, Roux set a school single-season record with 46 combined wins (22 singles, 24 doubles) and tied a school record for doubles wins.

Overall, the players find playing at the Division I level far more challenging, but Airaldi, Roux and Tori have stepped up their games to a new level of play for the transition.

“I was worried about the transition in the beginning,” De Marzo said. “In Division II, you would play 5-7 good matches. In Division 1 you have good matches every time. It’s more competitive for them and more competitive for me too.

As a freshman, Roux won the deciding match against Nick Tzekos, 6-2, 7-5, in USC Upstate's 5-0 triumph against Lander to reach the NCAA Round of 16, marking USC Upstate’s last home match in its Division II era. The victory sent the Spartans to the D-II National Tournament.

“I won the match to go to nationals that year,” Roux said. “But this year, we’re in Division I. This year we have a very, very good team.”

Fellow Spartan Airaldi started the Spartans’ Division I era by winning the “B” singles draw at the USC Upstate Fall Tournament, picking up the “A” doubles title at the tournament with doubles partner Sandy Franz and by winning the “B2” singles flight at the South Carolina Fall Invitational.

“Playing in Division I is a lot different because the level of tennis has changed a lot,” Airaldi said. “The teams play very well. But at Division II, not so much. It’s amazing how teams can play so well at this level.”

As a freshman in 2007, Tori finished with an overall mark of 13-8 in singles play and 21-7 in doubles play. During the first year of USC Upstate’s transition to Division I in 2008, Tori posted a 20-11 record in singles and a 22-8 record in doubles, a marked improvement in play.

“Before I came to school I knew we were going to make the transition,” Tori said. “We fulfilled all of our goals by going to nationals and getting a national ranking last year. At Division I, the level is better, the schools are bigger, the teams are better. It’s a lot of nice positive things and it’s a great way to end college life, playing tennis outside of studying.”

Beginning this weekend, De Marzo and the Spartans open the 2010 season with tough non-conference foes such as Georgia Tech and nationally ranked teams in No. 5 Georgia.

“We lost 5-2 last year and 7-0 the year before. I’m saying we have a chance, but it’s up to them whether or not they want to win,” De Marzo said. “I just want to give them good matches and get ready.”

Even with such key matches early in the season, this team remains focused on the big prize, winning the regular-season title.

“Last year it came so close against ETSU,” Roux said. “We want the title. This year we have to win with the team we have. This year we have two new guys, so we should win the conference.”

USC Upstate has something to prove this year, especially standing up against ETSU, the A-Sun preseason men’s tennis favorites. The Bucs welcome No. 51 ranked Jesus Bandres to a team that returns two additional ranked players in No. 82 Grega Teraz, a junior, and No. 89 Charles Bottoni, another junior.

“Last year ETSU won the final match, but right now I think we can beat them,” Airaldi said. “I’m really excited to see what happens here this season as we have two more freshmen this spring. They are really good players so we have a really good chance to win this title.”

In the ITA preseason poll, USC Upstate earned a preseason ranking of 72, while ETSU, three-time defending A-Sun champions, returns from flawless conference play last season, earning a team ranking of 62, after a 63rd place finish nationally. Last season, the Spartans finished with a national ranking of 65 after an almost perfect conference record at 9-1, second in the league. USC Upstate also fell one set short of the A-Sun regular-season title at the hands of ETSU in the final match of the season

“That left a bad taste because we had some chances and we didn’t take them,” De Marzo said. “I think if we lose that match, our season could end right there. All they’re thinking about is beating ETSU. If we win, we’ll win the conference. My job is not to get them upset if they lose. They’ve been waiting for a year.”

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The Atlantic Sun Conference is an 11-member league committed to Building Winners for Life. The A-Sun stands for achievement with integrity in both the academic and athletic arenas, with a focus on the balance between the two for our student-athletes. Headquartered in Macon, Ga., the A-Sun boasts six of the top eight media markets in the Southeast. The A-Sun includes a blend of the most prestigious and dynamic private and public institutions in the region: Belmont University, Campbell University, East Tennessee State University, Florida Gulf Coast University, Jacksonville University, Kennesaw State University, Lipscomb University, Mercer University, University of North Florida, University of South Carolina Upstate and Stetson University.

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