One program is already there while another is trying to get back there.
The Ole Miss men's and women's tennis teams, always competitive and successful, begin their spring seasons this weekend in Oxford. The men, ranked No. 6 nationally, are back in their usual position among the nation's elite squads. The women, barely missing the NCAA Tournament field the past two seasons, are trying to make a comeback to national prominence.
Billy Chadwick's Rebels never venture far from the national spotlight. Always a threat to win conference and national honors and most of the time do so, the Rebels once again enter the season highly respected.
Ole Miss, SEC West champs three consecutive years (2002-04) as well as the overall SEC champion last spring, begins 2005 as the top pick again in the West as chosen by the league's coaches. Overall the Rebels are third behind No. 1 pick Georgia and No. 2 pick Florida.
Chadwick's team begins the season Friday at 2 p.m. at the Gillom Center's indoor courts against the University of New Orleans. The veteran Rebel head coach says he and his troops are ready to start.
"I'm very, very excited about this team," said Chadwick, now in his 26th year at Ole Miss. "It's a very talented team with very good chemistry. It's a young team in one sense, because we have three freshmen and two sophomores who are contributing a lot."
Ole Miss returns five of the top seven from last year's squad. Leading the Rebels in 2005 is the nation's No. 1 ranked player, Catalin Gard. Last year's SEC Player of the Year, Gard went 10-1 in the SEC at No. 1 singles to become the third Rebel to capture the league's top honor. This past fall Gard captured the year's first major collegiate event, the All-American Championships, defeating last year's Pac-10 Player of the Year, Sam Warburg of Stanford.
Sophomores Fredrik Aarum and Eric Claesson stepped up big in the team's championship run last year. The pair combined to go 26-9 at the Nos. 5 and 6 positions. Aarum, one of the top freshman in the SEC last year, posted an 8-1 record against league foes, and Claesson went 6-1 at No. 6 singles in conference play.
Also returning from the 2004 lineup is junior Juan Pablo Di Cesare, who after sitting out the 2003 season, made his debut for the Rebels. Di Cesare registered a 6-4 record in the SEC and reached the round of 16 at last weekend's SEC Indoor Championships.
Senior Karim Alayli has posted some big wins for the Rebels during the last two years. In 2004, he teamed with Gard late in the season, to post a 5-1 doubles record.
Bram ten Berge of The Netherlands is a new addition to the Rebel lineup this year. He advanced to the second round of the recent SEC Indoor before losing in three close sets to the nation's 12th-ranked player and eventual champion, Ken Skupski of LSU
Jakob Klaeson brings tremendous credentials after an outstanding junior career in which he won the Swedish 18-under championship in both singles and doubles. Klaeson displayed his abilities to the rest of the league at the SEC Indoor, knocking off Florida's Nestor Briceno (ranked 46th in the country) in the second round and playing a close match against last year's SEC Freshman of the Year, John Isner of Georgia, in the third round.
Erling Tveit comes in as the No. 1 ranked player from Norway. Tveit nearly upset Isner (ranked No. 18 in the nation) in the second round of the SEC Indoor, and then teamed up with Aarum to advance to the quarterfinals in doubles.
Senior David Donaldson of Jasper, Ala., has been a solid member of the Rebel program for several seasons and closes out his career this spring.
For the 11th consecutive year, the Ole Miss men's tennis team will begin the year ranked among the nation's top 10.
"In the SEC there are nine or 10 teams in the preseason top 25 in the country," Chadwick said. "You have to be up there in the national rankings or you don't have a chance in this league. Being No. 20 in the country would be great, but it might mean you're No. 7 in this conference."
Chadwick admits that keeping the program at a high level in collegiate tennis year in and year out is challenging,
"What we've done and will continue to try to do is to keep the level up so that if the breaks go our way, we've got a chance for a championship," he said. "You have to be there, and then you've got to get some luck. Everybody's good and there will be a sleeper team or two. You know the Floridas and Georgias and LSUs and Tennessees are not going away. You have to contend with those teams every year. And we want to stay right up there with them."
Players like Gard, who will conclude his Ole Miss career at the top of his game, have allowed Chadwick's program to continue to be among the best college tennis has to offer each season for more than a decade and counting.
"Cat has a very professional approach to the game, and that rubs off on the other players," said Chadwick, who will be assisted this spring by third-year coach Jeff Clark. "He just has that knack of being able to win the close matches. His teammates around him see the importance of being tenacious and never ever giving up. He had a phenomenal season last year, but every match he played was close. That's the way it's going to continue to be."
Coach Mark Beyers begins his fourth spring as head coach of Ole Miss women's tennis but only his third full year. When former head coach Jerry Montgomery left late in 2001, Beyers moved over from the assistant's post on the men's side to the head coaching position on the women's side.
The first season Beyers' Lady Rebels made it to the NCAA Tournament. But the past two seasons they have been the first team left out. That's right, for two consecutive years they've been the 65th team in a 64-team field.
So how do they know that? They called and asked the NCAA, that's how.
"We've got to work harder this year and not let it come down to a situation where it's that close," said Beyers, whose team is preseason No. 40 in the national women's tennis rankings. "We have to take care of business so it's not up in the air when decision time comes around."
The Lady Rebels open their season with two home matches at the Gillom Center this weekend – South Florida at noon on Saturday and Jacksonville State (Ala.) on Sunday also at noon.
Beyers said the weekend can't get here fast enough.
"We're ready for a match," said Beyers, who is assisted by fifth-year UM coach Whitt Taber. "You can feel the team is ready to play. They are tired of practicing and need these matches. They want to play against someone other than themselves."
The team will be anchored by veterans Chloe Carlotti (senior) and Virginia Tomatis (junior). All the other Lady Rebel players are sophomores and freshmen.
Beyers has several new faces in the lineup for the spring 2005 season.
"We basically have six new players and that's exciting," Beyers said. "We have some young kids that will play pretty high up in the lineup. You never know how people will react when they are put in pressure situations. We know what they are capable of doing. We can't wait to get started this weekend."
Ole Miss baseball has scrimmaged twice this week and will have two more intrasquads Saturday and Sunday, both days starting at 1 p.m.
Coach Mike Bianco, whose team is ranked as high as No. 16 nationally in preseason polls, says the first two days have been good.
"We hit the ball well the second day," he said. "We hit two home runs (Brian Pettway and Stephen Head). We hit some balls to the outfield wall with several doubles and triples. That's a lot of extra base hits for the first couple of days to see live pitching. I thought defensively we were pretty clean as well."
Among the second day pitchers, Bianco said RS freshman RHP Will Kline and RS freshman LHP Travis Bogue looked good, and that "it was good to see Stoney out there today."
"Stoney" is Stoney Stone, a juco RHP from Ruston, La., and Texarkana CC who finished up some course work at Northwest Mississippi CC in the fall.
This week's two intrasquads have basically been to get things started, loosen up some arms, and let players see live pitching and hitting.
"We kinda kicked off the new year," junior RHP Mark Holliman said. "Everybody threw to only five batters. It was really cold Monday. We're just kinda taking it slow at first. I felt pretty good out there. The first time out it's hard to tell, especially since it was five straight hitters and then you're done. And it was also so cold."
Holliman, most likely the Rebels' Friday night starter, says he knows this year can be a big one for him and for the team.
"Potentially it could be my last year here," said the Germantown (Tenn.) High product who should be a high draft pick in June. "There are a few other guys in the same situation. This is some guys' last shot to go to the College World Series and the last time some of us will play together. We want to do it now."
Holliman joins an impressive list of junior Rebel pitchers who have been important to the program since they arrived.
"We've worked together for a long time," he said. "We've competed with each other and against each other for a spot on the staff. It's helped build our character and build our team as we've gotten older and better for three years now."
Baseball's opening day 2005 is Tues., Feb. 15, at 3 p.m. against Arkansas State in Oxford.
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