Photos by Ellen Friedlander, Michael Wong
PASADENA, Calif. (Feb. 10, 2017) – A season of firsts, including the program's first win over a nationally ranked opponent and subsequently its own first-ever national ranking, in 2016 have Caltech men's tennis setting its sights higher than ever entering 2017. Three foundational seniors and consecutive top recruiting classes in program history have the Beavers better positioned for success, both this year and in the future, than ever before.
"We have 11 players who can start and there's practically no difference in ability level between any of them," Gamble said. "We've put two strong recruiting classes together now, which is something we haven't been able to do before. That presents new challenges, but it also creates motivation within the team. Everyone is confident and starting to believe what Caltech tennis is capable of achieving. It's going to be a fun season."
Seniors Morgan Lebby (Laguna Beach, Calif. / Laguna Beach), Ruthwick Pathireddy (Cerritos, Calif. / Whitney) and Ramsathwick Pathireddy (Irvine, Calif. / Whitney) will shoulder the leadership mantle as tri-captains following the graduation of emotional leader and two-year captain Rushikesh Joshi. All three have played integral roles in building the program into a force within the conference and will continue to do so in their final season as the Beavers look to solidify a position among the national rankings.
Ruthwick is set to reclaim the top singles court after posting a solid 10-4 record between #2 and #3 singles last season. With 14 matches' worth of experience there as a sophomore, he will match up with some of the nation's elite on a weekly basis with an eye on providing Caltech its first reliable run of results at the top spot in a decade. Lebby and Sathwick have been fixtures in both the singles and doubles lineups all three years, but with the team's newfound youth and depth may turn their focus more toward doubles, where both have been quite successful. Sathwick teamed with Ruthwick for a program-record 21 wins in their first two years before playing 10 matches at #1 with Joshi last spring, while Lebby has picked up 20 victories between #2 and #3 over his career.
"The seniors have been terrific taking over as captains," Head Coach Mandy Gamble said. "Morgan is really stepping up as a leader off the court, while the twins are great mentors on the court."
Even with the invaluable impact all three seniors will have this year, the team's real strength once again looks to come from its youth movement, particularly on the lower courts. Sophomores Zixiao Li (Coppell, Texas / Coppell), Andre Liu (Novi, Mich. / Novi) and Derik Nguyen (Anaheim, Calif. / Canyon) made up the program's highest-rated recruiting class in history and delivered on that promise instantly, combining for a whopping 31 singles victories between courts #4-6, a total they matched at #2 and #3 doubles.
"Our freshmen last season were huge additions and continue to be integral to the lineup," Gamble said. "They're a really tight group and will have chances to move higher in the lineup as they continue to mature and develop their games. All three played a lot last year, but are still fairly inexperienced relative to the best in our conference, at least toward the top of the lineup."
As successful as last year's freshman class was, the 2017 crop enters Caltech as the only one in program history to earn a Top-25 ranking in the annual tennisrecruiting.net summer poll. Miha Valencic (Colleyville, Texas/ Grapevine) is the headliner as the Beavers' first Top-100 recruit and is joined by twin Tine Valencic (Colleyville, Texas / Grapevine), Karthik Nair (Irvine, Calif. / Crean Lutheran) and Connor Soohoo (Redwood Shores, Calif. / Silicon Valley Tennis Acad.). Tine and Soohoo showed well against tough opposition in their collegiate debuts at the Fall ITA West Regional. All four will be in the early mix for the lower lineup spots in both singles and doubles, but will have every opportunity to rise in the lineup.
"Getting back-to-back strong recruiting classes is such a huge key for us to progress and sustain growth as a program," Gamble said. "We value seniority and experience, so as you saw last year we'll start them out lower in the lineup and let them learn and grow at their own pace. The nice part is that we already have a strong core, which affords us that flexibility."
After setting a program record for doubles wins together in their first two years, the Pathireddy twins paired with new partners in 2016, splitting their prowess across both #1 and #2 doubles, netting 17 wins between the two courts compared to just 11 as a team in 2015. Gamble looks to employ a full upper/underclassman pairing straight through the lineup this season, with Ruthwick and Nguyen the favorites to move up to #1 after posting a dominant 10-2 record at #2, while Li might be expected to continue his partnership with either Lebby or Liu, also potentially moving up from #3 to #2, and Sathwick teams with one of the touted freshmen.
"We've seen success pairing our freshmen with seniors and even sophomores," Gamble said. "Freshman pairings in doubles tend to be too one-dimensional, whereas college doubles is a pretty complex game. Pairing them with experienced players really speeds the learning curve, especially when it comes to patterns and formations, and we have good seniors who can make that a strength for us."
Gamble has compiled an ambitious schedule which will test her aspiring squad early and often. The slate includes six opportunities against nationally ranked teams and another two against teams ranked higher in the West Region.
"We want to break back into the national rankings," Gamble said. "We need to maintain our focus, not get ahead of ourselves and take care of business against the other SCIAC schools. You can't take anything for granted on the tennis court, so we're working hard, are ready to compete and have the desire to win."
Gamble and the Beavers open the season on Saturday, Feb. 18 at Cal Lutheran University (0-2), against which Caltech picked up its first nationally ranked victory last spring.