Local college notes: UDM tennis eyes first NCAA bid
Detroit Mercy’s men’s tennis team was a preseason pick to finish sixth in the Horizon League, and it’s not hard to figure out why.
The Titans have had two winning seasons since 1980 — none since the program returned in 2009 after being cut in 1996 — and were 3-16 and 0-6 in the conference last season. They also were returning most of the same cast.
Yet, the Titans surprised just about everybody with a second-place finish in the regular season, a bye into the Horizon League tournament semifinals, and a legitimate shot at earning their first NCAA Tournament appearance.
Detroit Mercy has had a tennis program since 1921, though it’s been cut off and on over the years, no fewer than three times.
“Look at the history of the program,” second-year coach Aaron Paajanen said. “It hasn’t been one of the more successful ones. I hate to use the word every coach uses, but there just wasn’t that ‘winning culture.’
“To be able to do what we’ve done has been pretty exciting. But at the same time, we’re really not satisfied. We haven’t really done anything yet.”
Detroit Mercy (11-12, 5-2 Horizon League) will play Cleveland State in the Horizon League tournament semifinals at 11 a.m. Saturday in Ann Arbor. A win there would put the Titans in Sunday’s 11 a.m. championship match, against either top-seeded Valparaiso or Youngstown State.
And a win there gets them into the NCAAs.
Detroit Mercy won its regular-season matches against Youngstown State and Cleveland State (both 4-3), and lost to Valparaiso (5-2). In fact, four of Detroit Mercy’s five regular-season wins were by the narrowest, 4-3 margin.
“Every match we’ve won in conference has been an absolute battle,” Paajanen said. “I knew we had the talent and ability, but I also knew it wasn’t going to be easy for us.”
Detroit Mercy started the season with just a seven-man roster (Paajanen prefers eight, at least), and you play six in matches. The margin for error was totally wiped away early in the season, when the Titans’ No. 4, senior Ismail Kadyrov, tore his ACL and was lost for the season.
The Titans’ started conference play with a narrow loss to Green Bay; that came down to the final match. The next time out, it came down to the final match again — this time, Detroit Mercy beat Youngstown State, with senior Patryk Koscielski winning the final match.
That gave Detroit Mercy confidence, and kicked off a five-match winning streak.
“To win that one,” said Paajanen, “showed that we weren’t too discouraged from the previous week.
“That really carried us.”
Detroit Mercy’s seven-man roster features four seniors, a junior and two sophomores — one of the sophomores being Artem Vasheshnikov from the Ukraine. (Four players are international.) He was added to the program over the offseason, and that was no small pickup. The first-team All-Horizon League player is at No. 1 singles and doubles, which allowed other players to move down a slot.
The seniors, though, get a lot of credit, too, Paajanen said.
They worked tirelessly in the offseason, whether training or playing in as many tournaments as possible, to improve their games. Notably, Koscielski, from England, went on to earn second-team, All-Horizon League recognition.
“They were all very motivated to get better, and I could see that during the offseason,” said Paajanen, who came to Detroit Mercy after a stint as an assistant at Jesuit Community-Santa Clara in California. “They were motivated, they were coachable, and they had the desire to not settle.
“To be able to take a team to the NCAA Tournament would be unbelievable.”
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