Lineup depth had become a theme in the early going of the spring for both Concordia University tennis squads. That notion was evident during a hectic stretch from March 6 – 12 that saw a total of 11 Bulldog matches (six men’s, five women’s) over spring break. The full potential of head coach David DeSimone’s programs would go unrealized as play was halted and eventually shut down in mid-March.
As it turned out, both teams were able to end their seasons in winning fashion and both were ranked in the top three of the GPAC in the official polls released by the NAIA. With so much uncertain over that spring break period, Concordia players did their best to maintain focus on the task at hand.
“Understandably it was a little bit off of tennis,” DeSimone said. “Once we got on the court and started warmups we were solely in that moment. We were concerned about what was going on off the court and we were concerned about that, but once we stepped on the court it was about getting the most out of the match. What can we do to get the most out of ourselves and our teammates in these few hours?”
The Concordia women had been coming off a GPAC tournament runner-up finish in 2019 and had hopes of returning to that stage. Behind the likes of senior Kirsten Wagner and junior Claudia Miranda Viera, the Bulldogs went 6-3 this season and were prepared for conference play after going up against a very strong Grinnell College (Iowa) team. Meanwhile, the men posted a 6-4 mark after ending spring break with victories over NCAA Division III opponents in Central College and Simpson College.
The spring break tour in Iowa – and the season as a whole – wrapped up on March 12. With conference action right around the corner, the coronavirus pandemic caused the cancellation of the remainder of the season, as announced on March 16. A chance at the program’s first-ever national tournament appearance will have to wait at least one more year.
“Everyone was disappointed not to be able to finish the season on their own terms,” DeSimone said. “But they also understood that this was a necessary step to be taken. Everyone was doing all they could to keep each other healthy and safe. We had the opportunity to process that and see other teams ending their seasons before we did. We could see it was a matter of time for us. Some people are still processing this and that’s normal. I think everyone on our team is in a pretty good place.”
A year earlier, star senior Marlene Maier (17-3 singles record) and solid depth resulted in a near miss in a hotly contested GPAC tournament championship match versus Hastings. This year’s team did not necessarily have one individual standout, but a lot of similarly talented competitors throughout the lineup. In singles play, the Bulldogs went 7-2 at the Nos. 3, 5 and 6 spots. They were also 7-2 at the No. 3 doubles position. Junior Allison Marshall led the way with her 7-2 singles record (mostly at No. 3 singles).
The men were similar in their ability to compete in the back half of the lineup. Sophomore Isaac Howes (6-4) and freshman Eduardo Rojas (6-4) topped the team in singles victories. Concordia was most successful at the No. 4 singles (7-3) and No. 2 doubles (7-3) positions this spring. The combo of sophomore Jack Kitson and Rojas were 5-1 together at the No. 2 doubles spot. Only one GPAC team had more wins than the Bulldogs.
The GPAC title races appeared to be pretty wide open with the Midland men and Doane women being the favorites (according to the most recent polls) heading into conference matches. DeSimone believes his teams would have been in the thick of things. Said the 2019 GPAC Women’s Tennis Coach of the Year, “I thought we were doing a lot of good things on the women’s side. We knew we played the strongest team we would see all year in Grinnell. We went away from the spring trip with a lot of confidence knowing we had taken strides forward. I would have loved to have seen how the conference schedule would have played out.”
DeSimone had plenty of experience at the top of the men’s lineup to lean upon thanks to the presence of the likes of senior Luke Zoller and junior Jeremy Berryman. Said DeSimone, “I feel like our men were starting to put into place a lot of things we were talking about in practice. We were trying out some different doubles combinations and would probably still be doing that if we were still playing. We had played two of the best teams we would play all year and came away with a lot of positives. I felt like we were prepared for our conference matches.”
No spring sport athletes were charged a season of competition due to the unusual circumstances. Regardless, this will still signal the end for several seniors. DeSimone’s 2020 roster featured four seniors on the men’s side and three on the women’s side. At the very least, they can take pride in knowing they’ve raised the profile and expectations for the program. While elusive to this point, GPAC titles are realistically attainable in the near future.
With sports put on hold, the fall of 2020 will be a crucial time of development for collegiate tennis programs. The Bulldogs have begun playing more countable matches during the fall. With that in mind, there’s plenty to look forward to for those returning for the 2020-21 academic year.
“We will have to be intentional with that fall time for sure,” DeSimone said. “Hopefully we can get some good quality time outdoors and put in some good work during that time. I’m confident that our players are staying fit and staying healthy and getting on the court when they can. We’re not getting that time on the court with each other right now and it’ll probably show (in the fall), but it will be the case for everyone. If we can take advantage of that fall time then we’ll be in a good spot come spring.”