FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – The Northern Arizona University men's tennis team returns this year picked No. 4 in the preseason polls. The Lumberjacks have not been picked to finish above fifth since 2012. Despite their ranking the 'Jacks have had formidable success under Director of Tennis Ki Kroll, who is entering his fourth season with the men and first with the women. Northern Arizona finished in third last season behind Idaho and regular season champions Weber State, but lost to Idaho just before making it to the championship. Now, Kroll and the very young, but experienced, roster of 11 are ready to take on the 2017 campaign.
"We have a very strong men's team, and this year they are buying into that," Kroll said. "Sometimes it takes time for them to have that confidence, but they believe in themselves and have that competitive fight."
This fall, NAU competed in five tournaments at the University of Arizona, ITA All-American Championships in Tulsa, Okla., University of New Mexico, ITA Mountain Regionals in Las Vegas, Nev. and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Nearly all the Lumberjacks saw preseason action with standout sophomore Tim Handel leading in singles and pairing with transfer Sebastian Eguez in No. 1 doubles. The sophomore went into the ITA Mountain Regionals No. 17 and upped his ranking after his impressive run to the quarterfinals. Now ranked No. 13, Handel became the first athlete in school history to receive a singles ranking in men's tennis in at least 15 years. Felix Schumann and Lucas Taylor also proved ready for this season after winning more than a combined six singles wins. In doubles, Thomas Fisher paired with Handel and Adi Zilberstein for a combined seven wins.
"We have a very deep team this year, so I'm looking forward to season," said Kroll. "We are young and last year was a learning experience for us, but this year I know we are ready to take things to the next level, especially after the fall season we had."
This season the Lumberjacks return eight from last year, adding just two freshmen and a transfer, none of which are seniors. Northern Arizona was without upperclassmen last season and without seniors the past three years. Being a young team is nothing new for the 'Jacks.
"We have really built off of our youth and gained valuable experience over the years," explained Kroll. "The guys realize they have potential and now we have a solid base of talent on the men's team. I'm very excited about our potential and our future."
Freshmen David Nguyen and Benjamin Van Hout are joined by Eguez, a transfer student from Northwood University. Nguyen comes to Flagstaff from Texas where he reached a 600 ranking in ITF Juniors. Van Hout, a Georgia native, was a four-year starter, letterwinner and MVP. He was named All-County Player of the Year after posting a career singles record of 78-8.
"One of the hardest things is being able to acclimate to a different altitude, and for the younger players they have to get used to playing at all these different altitudes in the Big Sky," said Kroll. "It takes a little bit of time adjusting to the constantly changing elevations."
For Eguez, he has adjusted well and proved to be a good fit for the team. With five doubles wins and seven singles wins, including over No. 20 Arkansas' Austin Robles, during the fall, Eguez has proved he is ready to start competing right away.
The Lumberjacks will have some tough non-conference opponents this year in Brigham Young University, Utah, San Diego State, UC Irvine, Arizona, Air Force and Seattle before competing in their first conference matchup against Montana who finished right behind NAU last year. Kroll expects nothing but commitment and effort from the players. With that he knows they will get the points they need.
"I'm confident in this team and they realize how good they are," said Kroll. "As long as everyone is committed and gives their maximum effort, we will end will a good result."
The Lumberjacks went 73-71 overall in singles last season with Taylor, Schumann, Ruben Montano and Handel accounting for a combined 51 wins. Of all their season opponents, the Lumberjacks will face one of their toughest opponents in San Diego State and their ranked singles players. No. 11 Marko Goles-Babic and No. 16 Sander Gjoels-Andersen combined for 20 wins for the Aztecs in 2016.
Other teams NAU will face in 2017 include UC Riverside, New Mexico, Western New Mexico, Nevada and UNLV. The Lumberjacks start the season on the road against BYU Feb. 4.
Despite their youth, the Lumberjacks are looking to excel this season. With a team finish of 13-12 overall and 8-3 in the Big Sky Conference last year, NAU hopes to bring even more experience into the 2017 campaign. Kroll and his squad are ready to take the year by storm and unleash their true potential, especially in the beautiful Aquatic and Tennis Complex.
"We have a beautiful facility here," said Kroll. "Support will continue to grow and it will add to the excitement. The players enjoy seeing their friends and community supporting them. This could be the year we do something great."