FLORENCE, SC – The nationally ranked Francis Marion University men’s and women’s tennis teams will open their 2011 season on Sunday (Feb. 6) when the Patriots play host to Queens University of Charlotte at 11 a.m. on the Kassab Courts. Admission is free.
The FMU women are ranked 13th in the 2011 pre-season Intercollegiate Tennis Association NCAA Division II Top 50 national poll, while the men are ranked 14th.
FMU head coach Garth Thomson welcomes back three letterwinners from last year’s 17-6 women’s squad that reached the semifinals of the Peach Belt Conference Tournament and advanced to the finals of the NCAA Southeast Regional Tournament. All six of the losses were to teams ranked 11th or higher, including three losses to the nation’s No. 1-ranked team.
On the men’s side, Thomson returns seven lettermen from last year’s 12-8 team that also reached both the semifinals of the PBC Tournament and finals of the NCAA Southeast Regional Tournament. Seven of the team’s defeats were to squads that were nationally ranked, while the other loss was to a Division I opponent.
Leading the women returnees are junior Jitka Gavdunova and sophomore Mona Blauen.
Blauen, a pre-season All-Peach Belt selection, is currently ranked 31st in the Division II women’s singles rankings. She and Gavdunova are also ranked fifth nationally in doubles. As a freshman, Blauen registered a 17-4 mark in singles play, and she and Gavdunova were 20-3 in doubles play, including a perfect 12-0 mark in Peach Belt play. Gavdunova is ranked 35th in singles after posting a 17-4 record last season.
“These two young ladies will give us solid play at the top of the line-up,” Thomson said. “In addition to sophomore Kerry Hall who returns, the rest of the roster is composed of newcomers: four freshmen and one sophomore. Our success will be linked to how well these young players adjust to the college game and how they perform.
“The entire squad has been working hard. Our goal as always is to finish as high as possible in the Peach Belt and get into the NCAAs.
“Freshmen Caitlin Siney and Kimberley Hurter will likely occupy the three and four spots in the line-up with Hall (14-9 singles record in 2010) playing in the fifth position. Two local products,
sophomore Kathryn Vernon (Florence Christian School) and freshman Rachel Gaster (Johnsonville High School) will battle with freshman Monica Downey (Fort Dorchester High School) for playing time at the No. 6 slot.”
The FMU men must replace departed two-time All-American Dilshod Sharifi. Thomson expects senior Oshada Wijemanne, a two-time All-American himself, to move into the No. 1 position and fill that void.
Wijemanne is ranked third nationally among Division II men’s singles players. He posted an 11-4 singles record in 2010 and this past fall he reached the finals of the USTA/ITA Southeast Regional Tournament – where he beat the current No.13 and No.4 players before losing to the current No.2 player in the title match. In doubles play, he recorded an 11-8 mark during the 2010 season.
The native of Colombo, Sri Lanka, owns career records of 45-10 in singles play and 43-17 in doubles competition.
“After Oshada at the top of the line-up, senior Karl Rogers (12-6 singles record in 2010), junior Jack Bishop (10-6), and sophomore Alex Caspari (11-6) will likely fill positions 2-4,” Thomson said. “We have five others players, including freshmen Tim Ruepke and Zack Wagner, battling for the final two singles slots. The competition is preseason has been good and that should benefit us down the road.”
Rogers owns 39 singles victories in his previous three seasons.
“We are still trying to find the right doubles pairings. Last year, we found ourselves down after doubles play in half of our matches. This year we have placed an emphasis on finding three solid doubles teams that can put us in a good position to win matches.
“The Peach Belt features at least eight quality programs, so as with the women, our goal will be to finish as strongly as we can in PBC play and then get an invitation to the NCAA Tournament. That being said, there is no room for error when playing either region or conference matches.
“Overall I am excited about starting the season. While the weather has put us a little behind in the number of outdoor practices, all programs in this region are in the same boat. Both our squads are fit and that should be one of our strengths. Aside from that factor, wins and losses will be determined on how well we hit the ball and how we play mentally.”
Entering his 19th season at FMU, Thomson has directed the FMU women to a 234-155 record, while the men boast a 264-126 mark over that same time. The women have made five consecutive trips to the NCAAs and 10 in the past 16 years, while the Patriot men have made three straight appearances and 14 in the past 16 seasons.
Since being formed 20 years ago, the Peach Belt Conference has claimed six national titles in women’s tennis and 10 in men’s tennis.
The Patriots had been set to plan an exhibition match against the College of Coastal Georgia on Friday (Feb. 4), but that match has been canceled due to the impending threat of precipitation. Following Sunday’s opener, Francis Marion will travel to Coker College on Feb. 10, before hosting Mount Olive College on Feb. 11 and Barton College on Feb. 12.