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IIT hoping its first trip to Nationals is not also its last

2016 Illinois Institute of Technology team 

By Ashley Marshall

The Illinois Institute of Technology has more seniors and graduate students on its Tennis On Campus National Championship roster – six – than any other school competing in Cary, N.C., this month. But rather than being a club of veteran players with several high-level tournament successes under its belt, the IIT team is instead hoping that its first trip to Nationals is not also its last.

The Scarlet Hawks are one of seven first-time schools competing in the 64-team field at the 2016 National Championship, but the potential for the team to fold next year has many of its players looking to make the most of their time at Cary Tennis Park.

The club was founded in 2009. Current captain George Beloiu Serbanescu took over as club president as a sophomore the following year. The team reached Sectionals this year for the first time in school history and earned its bid to Nationals by being named the USTA Midwest Section Tennis On Campus Club of the Year.

The club has grown each year under Beloiu Serbanescu’s leadership, but in a school of just 7,000 students – including almost 5,000 graduate and doctoral students – finding fresh talent each year has been a constant difficulty. The coed team has survived in part because of the lack of a varsity tennis program, but that might not last long; the university is currently looking at the possibility of forming  a men’s and women’s Division III team this fall, which would attract many of the club sport team’s better players.

“For a lot of us, this is a do-or-die year,” said the Romanian-born Beloiu Serbanescu, who has been playing tennis since he was 4 years old. “We’re very eager and very blessed to be going to Nationals. It could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for us.”

Beloiu Serbanescu said his team wants to be in the mix to win it all when the National Championship is contested on April 16, but he said that as long as the team has fun, plays hard and makes the most of being surrounded by other talented clubs, the tournament will be a success regardless of win-loss records.

“Going to Nationals is a big deal for our club,” said Beloiu Serbanescu, a structural engineer student in IIT’s civil engineering program. “In 2013, there were maybe five active members and we weren’t really traveling that much. Then we started practicing more, attending events and fundraising more. This year, we had about active 30 players. It has been a drastic improvement, but it has been a group effort.”

The club hosted a two-day, eight-team tournament in September for the first time, and the Scarlet Hawks hope to build on the success of that event to draw Illinois- and Wisconsin-based programs together more frequently in the future. That, however, is predicated on maintaining an active tennis club.

“We want to build the ultimate tennis community in Chicago,” Beloiu Serbanescu said. “We brought a lot of the other clubs from Chicago and Milwaukee here, and since then we’ve practiced with them after the tournament. We want to get better together and we want to network with other tech schools through tennis and through our majors.

“But the club team may get dropped, and we rarely have enough players even when we recruit. We’re a small tech school, the school campus is half a mile wide and it’s 70 percent male. Some of our players were not that experienced when they started, but they have improved and they’re at the top of the roster today. A D-III program won’t give you that chance.”

Win or lose, Beloiu Serbanescu is proud of how far the team has come. And now that he has helped the tennis club get on the map, he hopes it will stay there long after he has graduated.