ORLANDO, Fla. -- While confidence was growing inside Northern Arizona University’s club tennis team last spring, few of its players could have anticipated being in a position to compete for a national title.
After all, the club was just 10 years old, and it had historically struggled to attract new members and compete with the more established teams in the USTA Southwest section.
Then, almost out of nowhere, the senior-led Lumberjacks squad caused one of the biggest upsets of the season by winning the prestigious Spring Invitational tournament and earning a place at the Tennis On Campus National Championship for the very first time.
Those seniors graduated shortly after winning the title, leaving a young and relatively inexperienced club to try to capitalize on those successes. For incoming captain Harrison Reid, 2018 is about building on the foundation started by the previous team.
“We have to carry on their legacy,” Reid said. “Last year, we had a lot of seniors on the team that helped us win the Spring Invitation when nobody was expecting us to win, so that worked in our advantage.
“I think everyone today should feel good about themselves, especially since we made it for the first time. It’s not necessarily about winning or losing now. We’d like to win, but overall, if we play well, everyone will be happy."
Last March at the Surprise Tennis & Racquet Complex in Surprise, Ariz., Northern Arizona defeated the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill, Northwestern, Michigan State and San Diego State University to become the sixth different winner in the past six years.
It was a remarkable run, considering the four teams Northern Arizona defeated each won their round-robin with a 3-0 record and have been mainstays on the club tennis scene for several years now. Particularly impressive was the win over UNC, a club that reached the National Championship final in 2016 and finished third in 2015.
But of the players on the team that won the 2017 Spring Invitational, the two strongest members in the lineup, president Gabbi Chernack and fellow senior John Miller, have graduated. Combined with other seniors leaving, that left three freshmen, including Reid, a chemistry major with an emphasis on biochemistry, from Tucson, Ariz., to build on that momentum.
Kristen Way and Vincent Jaramillo have return for their second year on the team, but sophomores Todd Takeno and Callie Zirbel, junior Sydney Roman and Australian exchange student Kell Jeffries are all new additions to the squad.
The new-look team finished fifth in the Southwest section tournament this year – a competition that has been dominated by the University of Arizona in seven of the past eight years – and they placed fourth in several other events, including the Cactus Cup.
In November, the team welcomed 11 other club tennis teams to the NAU Invitational for the first time, another indication of how quickly the club is growing, and they won the silver bracket at a tournament held at Pepperdine, when they decided to compete in events outside of their section to get additional tournament play under their belts.
Reid admits the learning curve has been steep, but he says it’s more important to build the long-term future of the club than focus on short-term goals.
“This year has been a little bit of a struggle for us,” said Reid, who thanked the men’s and women’s varsity programs for the support they have shown the club tennis team. “We had a couple people graduate from our team, but we’ve been picking it up through the spring semester.
“We had some growing pains, but we’ve had a lot of good players come into the club, and that has helped. We have really tried to bring in as many people as we can to the club. It’s the only opportunity for a lot of people here to play tennis, so we welcome everyone, from accomplished junior players to people who have never picked up a racquet.”
The club went from struggling to attract new players and competing on poorly maintained outdoor courts in 2007 to growing the club’s membership to almost 50 members and moving into new indoor courts on campus.
Today, instead of having enough players to make a team, the biggest problem Reid faces is narrowing down his squad list to take to Nationals. There are no complaints from the captain, though. For him, it’s a good problem to have.