PASADENA (Feb. 7, 2019) – The 32nd-ranked Caltech men's tennis team will have a chance to build on a historically good 2018 and Fall ITA Regionals, returning last year's entire SCIAC Postseason Tournament team.
The Beavers will also take the court for the first time under new Head Coach Jason Cohen. Cohen joins the Beavers off a stint as the men's and women's coach at Colby College, one of Caltech's 19 opponents this year, and one of nine nationally ranked teams the Beavers will play outside of the SCIAC.
Cohen believes his squad can take a step forward into the next tier of teams by making the necessary mental improvements, some of which they have already shown in addition to controlling the factors immediately in front of them, both on and off the court.
"Some of the things we've been working on this year have specifically related to our mentality in matches and practice," Cohen said. "We're looking to better manage the things we can control, such as competing and having mental and physical toughness in matches in addition to how we can develop that within our team. Obviously you want to win and that's what I'm hoping for us to do this spring, but there are many things that will contribute to whether or not we are a winning team."
Caltech is returning the nation's fourth-ranked doubles team in Varun Shanker (Midland, Mich. / Midland Dow) and James Wei (Chappaqua, N.Y. / Horace Greeley). The sophomores will be fixtures atop the Beavers' singles and doubles lineup as the reigning champions at the ITA West Regionals in 2018. Shanker and Wei then got a taste of playing some of the nation's top teams at the ITA Cup in Rome, Ga., none of which they had played against previously. Breaking into the nation's top-four teams as sophomores, however, may give the talented team the confidence necessary to improve on last year's 12-win season, a single-season program record for a doubles pairing.
The sophomores have shown themselves to be just as potent singles players. Wei set the single-season wins record last year with 15, 11 of which came from the second singles spot, while Shanker, aided by strength-of-schedule playing out of the top spot, comes into the season as the west region's 19th-ranked singles player.
"It was helpful to see James and Varun playing against some high-level teams while getting to work on some new strategies and formations in doubles," Cohen said. "That's one of those things that we as a whole need to work on but especially with James not being 100-percent, it really opened up opportunities to mixing it up because we had to. They've learned that doing the same thing over-and-over again isn't quite good enough. I think it allowed them to see that they need to be more flexible mentally in matches."
Shanker, along with seniors Derik Nguyen (Anaheim, Calif. / Canyon) and Zixiao Li (Coppell, Texas / Coppell), will captain this year's 11-man squad. Nguyen has consistently played among the top-four singles spots and could see similar usage this year. He has also typically played doubles alongside classmate Zixiao Li, though Cohen is open to mixing things up if it's going to produce results. Li is an accomplished bottom-three singles player and previously set the single-season wins record as a freshman with 14 before Wei broke it in his debut season last year. Nguyen and Li combined for double-digit wins last season and will be looking to go out on a high-note in their final season of collegiate tennis where they will have the opportunity to lead a team with the potential to compete with the SCIAC – and nation's very best teams.
"Derik and Zixiao have been one of the major driving forces behind Caltech becoming a good tennis team," Cohen said. "That senior class really helped turn the team around and those guys have really been at the forefront the program's turnaround. Varun is one of the hardest workers we have and is a leader by example. It was easy for me to make him a captain because he works super hard and it's made life pretty easy for everyone."
Caltech will also be returning junior Miha Valencic (Colleyville, Texas / Grapevine), who has seen success primarily as a singles player. Valencic tied for the team lead with nine wins as a freshman before breaking out even further in his sophomore season with 13 wins between three different positions, second to only Wei and his record season. The junior will certainly be in the conversation to occupy a mid-tier singles spot once again as the team's winningest player over the past two seasons. Sophomore Kevin Yu (Mason, Ohio / Cincinnati Country Day) had a similarly dominant year going 8-0 between fourth and fifth singles in 2018. He too could factor into more singles wins in 2019, as could former SCIAC Athlete of the Week junior Connor Soohoo and senior Andre Liu (Novi, Mich. / Novi), who picked up 11 wins his sophomore season.
The Beavers are also adding three freshmen in Matthew Gonzalgo (Plantation, Fla. / St. Thomas Aquinas), Patryk Kozlowski (Irvine, Calif. / University High) and Jake Will (Honolulu, Hawaii / Punahou School). Gonzalgo, a three-star recruit, is a proven winner against players of similar skill-level and could immediately factor into the Beavers' bottom-three. Kozlowski comes to Caltech similarly heralded but brings with him some key doubles credentials as well that could make him another instant contributor. Will originally stepped foot on campus as a two-star recruit but has already shown tremendous improvement since then and could continue to do so playing alongside a tremendous crop of Caltech tennis players in 2019.
"We have a fairly balanced team in terms of class breakdown," Cohen said. "I think the underclassmen have particularly bought into some of the things I've been teaching them, which bodes well for the future of our program. Soon, incoming freshmen will just follow along with what the upperclassmen are doing and that will lock in the culture of our program. That said, the upperclassmen have done a great job as well, but it's especially encouraging from the underclassmen. Everything is going pretty well."
Cohen and the Beavers will begin their season on the road this Sunday, Feb. 10 when they travel to the University of California, Santa Cruz for a 9 a.m. match.