PASADENA, Calif. (Jan. 28, 2016) – Opportunity knocks for Caltech men's tennis in 2016.
Playing in what is arguably the nation's top conference for men's tennis, it is no surprise that the window to compete is only ever open the slimmest of margins. Yet heading into this spring, that opening could be wider than it has been for some time. Five of last year's top six players and a further three of the next five – all ranked in the top 16 for the West Region – have graduated. Five SCIAC foes will enter the season with new #1 singles players, many for the first time in several years. Both the teams with their #1 returning will be in the same position next year.
The Beavers, meanwhile, return their entire squad whose three most successful players are all entering only their junior year. Add in three of the program's highest-rated recruits in history and as inspiring a senior captain as any team could ask for, and all signs point to this being a banner year for Caltech.
"We have incredible depth this year, more than we've ever had," Head Coach Mandy Gamble said. "Our top seven really can be lined up any which way, they're all so close to one another and working hard as a group to get better together. Rushikesh [Joshi] is showing amazing leadership again and everyone is dedicated to putting in that work to get to where we want. We have some very talented freshmen joining a very experienced group of juniors and seniors that should make for a good spring."
Although the top four singles spots were all but set last year, this season could see a very fluid lineup between those positions. Junior Ruthwick Pathireddy (Cerritos, Calif. / Whitney) held down the #1 position for all but four matches in 2015, while younger twin Ramsathwick Pathireddy (Irvine, Calif. / Whitney) and junior Morgan Lebby (Laguna Beach, Calif. / Laguna Beach) led the squad with nine and eight victories, respectively, at courts #3 and #4, with each recording three wins in SCIAC play. In fact, the latter pair has racked up more wins over their last two seasons than any player in the last 10 years, with Lebby already ranking fifth in program history and Pathireddy sixth for career singles wins. Ruthwick, meanwhile, won the most matches (four) at #1 singles in at least the last five and possibly as many as 10 years.
"Sathwick had another good season as a sophomore, leading us in wins at a key spot in the lineup," Gamble said. "He is very talented and we're looking to get him off to a quicker start in matches – he played a lot of three-setters last year so we want to get him warmed up and ready to go from the first serve to take those in two this season. Ruthwick had a great season for us at #1, winning four matches and losing a lot of close ones to some regionally ranked players. Continued improvement in his conditioning should lead to pulling some of those out, as will his mental maturation."
The Pathireddy twins' most significant contribution last year came in doubles, where they took a huge leap to post an 11-8 record at #1 after a 7-4 mark at #2 and just 1-7 at #1 as freshmen. Lebby and senior Rushikesh Joshi (Sunnyvale, Calif. / Archbishop Mitty) also showed improvement in their second year as doubles partners, going 7-11 with a pair of SCIAC wins at #2 last year after an 8-7 2014 season at #3.
Joshi is set to reprise his role as the team's elder statesman. Having played 42 career matches at #2 singles, he has certainly been battled-tested and will fight to the end at any of the top spots, but this could be his year to finally break through against the typically top-heavy lineups of other SCIAC foes.
"Rush is so crucial to our team," Gamble said. "He is really looking forward to his senior season and making it a memorable one for himself and the team. Morgan was our wins leader as a freshman and moved up from #6 to #4 last year. As he becomes more attuned to the style of play that best suits him, he could be ready to take on an even bigger role in our lineup as a junior."
The freshman trio of Zixiao Li (Coppell, Texas / Coppell), Andre Liu (Novi, Mich. / Novi) and Derik Nguyen (Anaheim, Calif. / Canyon) enters Caltech as the highest-ranked recruiting class in program history. Li and Nguyen peaked among the top 300 and 350, respectively, while Liu was tabbed at No. 449 before shocking the No. 233 recruit and #9 seed, Samuel Gearou, in the fall ITA West Regionals with a two-set victory.
Li racked up over 100 combined wins between #1 singles and doubles over two years at Coppell High School, where he claimed both singles and doubles District titles. Liu's resume includes a state championship and multiple regional and conference championships, while Nguyen amassed over 200 combined singles and doubles wins for his career while earning First Team All-League honors three times, among various other awards.
"I knew these three were good players with potential as recruits, but once you get a look at their styles and personalities, it is really something to start to envision what they could become here," Gamble said. "We got a peek at Zixiao's potential in a close loss to a highly rated recruit at ITAs; his combination of mental and physical skills, in addition to his commitment and work ethic, are going to add some real strength to the team as critical depth. Andre has really been looking forward to the opportunity to play in college and you could see that enthusiasm carry him in his performance at ITAs. Derik is a very talented player who has all the shots in his arsenal and is really a prototype of the kind of student-athlete we look for in our program – as a coaching staff, we're looking forward to mentoring him and giving him all the tools he needs to fulfill his vast potential."
Critical to the team's depth is the handful of players vying to break into the starting lineup. Senior Leonardo Zornberg (Austin, Texas / Liberal Arts & Science Acad.), junior Alex Henny (South Portland, Maine / Scarborough) and sophomores Zachary Lipel (Tarzana, Calif. / North Hollywood) and Fabio Arai (Sao Paulo, Brazil / Colegio ETAPA) return having accumulated 31 starts between them, with Henny ranking fourth on the team with five wins between #5 and #6 singles. Freshman Praful Vasireddy Tulsa, Okla. / OSSM) joins that quartet eager to carve out a role in the team as well.
"Leo has developed and matured as much as anyone I've coached over four years," Gamble said. "He leads all the conditioning work, continues to improve his tennis and makes such a significant contribution through everything he does. It's personally very rewarding as a coach to have been a part of the development of a guy like that. Alex has been a consistent, reliable contributor all three seasons and Zach and Fabio stepped right in when given the opportunity as freshmen last year. Adding Praful, who is working hard to improve and reach his significant potential as he plays more tennis than he has been able to for some time, is just fantastic."
Another new face joins the Beavers for 2016 in assistant coach Jonny Wang, an All-America player at Division I USC and local San Marino High School graduate.
"Jonny has been a wonderful addition to the program already," Gamble said. "He brings a great perspective with his Division I experience and is really connecting with the guys. I'm thrilled with the impact he has already made and looking forward to a great year with him."
The Beavers open the season on Sunday, Jan. 31 playing host to Linfield University at 11 a.m. before taking a month-long break from competition ahead of a Feb. 26 SCIAC-opening match against Cal Lutheran University.