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ND MEN’S TENNIS: Court warriors

Kate Gales | Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Dual match play is months away for the Irish, but a strong showing at the Tom Fallon Invitational last weekend has the team poised to be a contender this year.

After going 38-10 overall as a team and posting a 29-6 finish in singles matches, junior Stephen Bass emphasized the importance of fall play for the team.

“It lets you concentrate on individual play,” said Bass, who is the highest-ranked Irish player at No. 74. “Fall tennis, it’s just for you, but it makes a statement for the team as a whole.”

The Irish leapt out to a convincing start on the first day of the Tom Fallon Invitational, a home tournament at Notre Dame, whose players competed against players from Ball State, Michigan, Purdue, Drake and Wisconsin.

“Now, I think we realize we’re one of the very good teams in the middle of the country,” Irish coach Bobby Bayliss said. “Now we want to go beyond that.”

All four ranked players – Bass, No. 77 Sheeva Parbhu, No. 89 Eric Langenkamp and No. 108 Brett Hegleson – posted singles wins on the opening day, as did Irackli Akhvlediani, Ryan Keckely, Yuchi Uda, Patrick Buchanan and Andrew Roth.

Bass’ win was a straight-sets defeat of Matko Maravic, who was the highest-ranked player in the tournament at No. 42.

Doubles were far from a letdown for the Irish, who went 3-1 in defeating two Michigan teams and one from Drake.

Keckley and Langenkamp, the strongest doubles team for the Irish, defeated Maravic and Brian Hung of Michigan – the No. 22 team in the nation – in a 9-7 upset. Bass and Helgeson teamed up for an 8-3 win against Michigan, and Buchanan and Roth defeated a Drake team with an 8-5 victory.

“I think our singles play is pretty exceptional, I think all of us performed pretty well there,” Bass said after the tournament concluded. “In doubles, we actually did pretty well too … We need a little work in a few areas of singles and doubles, but I think we made a pretty bold statement.”

The second day saw another doubles upset for Keckley and Langenkamp, who posted a decisive 8-4 victory over the No. 15 team from Ball State. The pair also defeated a Purdue team earlier in the day to improve to 5-1 in their career together.

“I am excited about their level,” Bayliss said. “They’ve clearly become one of the top teams in the entire Midwest, and I hope it goes beyond that.”

According to Bayliss, Keckley and Langenkamp have been a successful pairing because their games complement each other.

“Ryan provides the raw ability to take the ball early and crash the net and Eric, while he can do that, also has the variety of being able to use spins and use more angles of the court, so they’re a multi-dimensional doubles team,” Bayliss said. “Their personalities seem to blend pretty well, and I have pretty high hopes for them.”

Notre Dame took four other doubles matches, with Helgeson and Roth winning one and Helgeson teaming with Parbhu for another win. Bass and Buchanan won, as did the pairing of Buchanan and Roth.

The doubles teams made a good showing over the weekend in an area where Notre Dame has struggled recently.

“There’s a lot of possibilities there, all of them excite me, and the challenge is going to be … to really bring out the best in what they’re capable of doing,” Bayliss said.

In singles, day two and three both featured dominant showings from the Irish. On Saturday, Bass, Helgeson, Akhvlediani, Uda, Santiago Montoya, Buchanan and Parbhu all posted wins. Langenkamp was battling an injury and was finally retired in a tiebreaker.

On the final day, the Irish went 6-1 with wins by Bass, Parbhu, Helgeson, Buchanan, Roth and Montoya.

“In the singles, I’m really excited that we’re capable of some pretty good things,” Bayliss said. “Stephen’s shown that he’s ready for the big stage now. … He worked very, very hard over the summer and deserves a lot of credit for staying with it. He always could compete, but now he has new weapons.”

Fall tennis will continue through the beginning of November, and includes a match against perennial powerhouse USC.

“We can’t get too overconfident with what we did … we didn’t beat anybody in the top 10,” Bayliss said. “We really need to start raising our sights a little bit and seeing if we can compete at each level.”

But Bayliss believes this team can do just that.

“I think these guys are a little more committed to each other than I’ve seen in a few years,” he said. “They’ve set up some of their own team rules that I don’t have anything to do with.”

Bayliss attributes some of that to the fact that these players have been together for three or four years already, and have often been forced into stepping into big roles at a young age. He said that this year’s team is focused on achieving national prominence.

“We’re pretty well-focused on these kind of goals,” he said. “I think you’re going to see a much better team this year.”