Sophomores ready to lead for GVSU tennis

GVL / Emily Frye
Alexa Sweeney

GVL / Emily Frye Alexa Sweeney

Beau Troutman

After losing six seniors and featuring a roster that has five sophomores and six freshmen, many would chalk the 2015 season up as a rebuilding year.

Just don’t tell the players that.

The Grand Valley State women’s tennis team features a tightly-knit squad that’s confident in its young roster.

“There’s definitely going to be a learning curve, particularly in the doubles, but we’re a very deep team,” said head coach John Black.

The Lakers finished 12-3 (all against GLIAC opponents) last fall, coming up just short against Wayne State in the GLIAC tournament final, losing 5-4. GVSU was dominant at home, going 5-0 and outscoring opponents a combined 38-7.

The GLIAC final was a thriller. Tied 4-4, it came down to Alexa Sweeney, a freshman last year, in the singles competition at the #4 seed. Although she came back from a 0-5 deficit in the tiebreaker set to make it 5-4, she ended up losing a hard luck match 6-4.

“I just fought really hard because not only do I want it for myself, but for everyone,” Sweeney said. “I ended up losing, but I was OK with it. It’s hard to have the pressure, but it’s motivating. I don’t think I could’ve come back those four games in a row if I didn’t know it was down to me. Pressure is a good thing.”

Sweeney seems primed for a breakout year after being named an All-GLIAC Honorable Mention last year, finishing with an 11-1 record in singles play and 12-3 in doubles during the regular season. Her teammates are confident in her abilities.

“She deals with pressure very well,” said fellow sophomore Aimee Moccia.

The Lakers will be looking for players who can step up and handle that type of pressure, as they graduated their top three players last year in Leah Dancz, Kali Phillips and Carola Orna.

Moccia and sophomore Abby Perkins will also be looked upon to deliver this year after strong freshman seasons. Moccia went 11-4 in doubles play partnered with senior Morgan Patterson last year, and Perkins went 11-3 in singles play.

The five young sophomores on the roster – Sweeney, Moccia, Perkins, Rachel Sumner and Courtney Lang – are not afraid of leading the six new freshmen this year.

“We just experienced what they’re going through last year, so we know exactly how they’re feeling,” said Sweeney. “We’re close enough in age where it’s not that different.”

They even feel the closeness in age gives them an advantage.

“I like it better this way,” Perkins said. “It’ll be better because I think we have more common ground (with the freshmen) and we can help them out, rather than if we were on our way out. We’re going to be here a while with them, so we want to make it as good as we can.”

A freshman to watch for this fall is Madison Ballard, a three-star recruit and the 138th overall ranked prospect. She was the crown jewel of what was a strong recruiting class overall. Ballard was named the 2015 Flint-Journal player of the year, was named First-Team All-State four times, and finished at Fenton High School with a whopping 95-8 career record.

All six freshmen had decorated high school careers. They were all ranked in the top 500 recruits by, and have a combined 17 First Team All-State appearances among them.

Having so many accomplished young players excites Black about the future.

“We’re not going to graduate anyone for three years,” he said. “We’ll be very solid this year, and we could be really good for the next couple of years.”

With Sweeney, Moccia and Perkins returning for the Lakers, they have a strong core in singles play. Coach Black has yet to determine any seeding at this point, but he’s confident in whoever takes the other three singles spots.

“There’s not a lot of difference from number one to number 11,” Black said.

The Lakers’ Achilles’ heel will be how well they perform in doubles play.

“Once you’re up (in doubles), it gives you confidence in the singles rather than having to catch up. That would take a lot of pressure off of the singles players, especially the freshmen,” Perkins said.

GVSU lost four of its six doubles starters from last year, and will be dependent on young players stepping up and learning quickly. If the Lakers can do this, there’s no reason to count them out from GLIAC contention.

Success in doubles will be important in the pursuit of GVSU’s biggest goal: its first conference championship since 2010.

“I want to say we’re the underdogs,” Moccia said. “We’ve always done well, but with all these freshmen that’s how it will look. But we’re always a contender.”

The Lakers will open the season Sept. 5 at Michigan Tech.