With most of their players back, Eagles aim for another title

OC's men's tennis team, here celebrating winning the NAIA title in 2012, will begin its 2013 season Friday in Abilene, Texas.
OC's men's tennis team, here celebrating winning the NAIA title in 2012, will begin its 2013 season Friday in Abilene, Texas.

OKLAHOMA CITY (Jan. 30, 2013) – There wasn’t much Oklahoma Christian’s men’s tennis team didn’t accomplish in 2012. National title? Check. The No. 1-ranked singles player in the NAIA? Check. National coach of the year honors? Check.

The Eagles left the NAIA in style with the program’s second national championship. As the university begins the transition into NCAA Division II, OC has moved into the National Christian College Athletic Association, along with several other former top NAIA tennis schools, including Fresno Pacific (Calif.), the team the Eagles stunned 5-4 in last May’s NAIA championship match in Mobile, Ala.

There’s another title out there to be had, and with four starters and a key reserve back from last season’s 20-3 team, the odds would appear good the Eagles will challenge for it under longtime coach Kris Miller, who earned his fifth Intercollegiate Tennis Association NAIA men’s coach of the year award in 2012.

The Eagles will begin the 2013 season on Friday in Abilene, Texas, first playing Tyler (Texas) Junior College in an exhibition before taking on NCAA Division III Trinity (Texas) later in the day. OC will face Abilene Christian (Texas) on Saturday.

“We only have six players, which is kind of tough, especially if somebody gets hurt,” said student assistant coach Renardy Guelfi, who was a member of last season’s title-winning team. “But we are preparing the guys to be in shape. They are working hard to make sure they’re not injured.”

At the top of OC’s lineup will be two of the nation’s best small-college players. Junior Bruno Tiberti ended last season ranked No. 1 in the NAIA and was named as the Ward-Ballenger Outstanding Player at the NAIA Championship, while senior Martin Poboril was No. 9. As a doubles duo, they were ranked No. 2.

Poboril reached the semifinals of the ITA Division II South Central Regional in Abilene last fall, while Tiberti fell in the third round. In doubles, they reached the regional title match. Both are starting off a bit lower in the preseason ITA Division II national rankings – Poboril at No. 33, Tiberti at No. 41 and No. 8 as a doubles duo – but they figure to move up as the season progresses.

Who plays at the No. 1 position and who plays at No. 2 will differ from tournament to tournament, much as it did last season.

“We feel like it’s important to always be mixing it up, to make sure other coaches see that it’s not predictable,” Guelfi said. “That will keep them from arranging their lineups against us.”

Last year’s No. 3 player, Jaime Sanchez-Canamares, plans to take a redshirt season in 2013, leaving that spot open. Guelfi said any of OC’s four other players – Nicolas Auruccio, Josip Smoljan, Julio Pulido or Paulo Roessle – could play in that spot.

Auruccio held down the No. 6 singles spot during OC’s NAIA tournament run and finished the season with a 6-4 singles record – including 2-1 at nationals. Pulido played at No. 5 or No. 6 most of the season and went 10-1 before a late-season injury kept him out of the national tournament. Roessle, a senior, went 5-1 in singles, playing at No. 5 or No. 6.

Smoljan is the wild card. The freshman redshirted last season but had an impressive fall, reaching the quarterfinals of the South Central Regional in singles and the semifinals in doubles, teamed with Roessle. He is No. 12 in the regional preseason rankings in singles and No. 4 in doubles.

“It’s been a headache to decide who is going to be third,” Guelfi said. “Not because we don’t have a No. 3, but because all of them are working so hard and putting a lot of effort into it and improving. That makes it hard for us to decide. They are all playing good and have evolved from last year.”

As they are unsure about how the singles lineup will fall, OC coaches also still are looking to determine the best doubles pairings, although Tiberti and Poboril are certain to continue their successful partnership. Guelfi said initially, the Eagles will pair Smoljan and Roessle, and Auruccio and Pulido.

OC’s schedule figures to be nothing short of brutal, with 11 matches against opponents that finished in the final Division II top 50 rankings last season and only three home dates.

On OC’s schedule are preseason No. 3 Lynn (Fla.), No. 4 Barry (Fla.), No. 5 Hawaii Pacific, No. 11 Abilene Christian, No. 15. St. Edward’s (Texas), No. 18 Incarnate Word (Texas), No. 19 Cameron, No. 24 Midwestern State (Texas), No. 29 Ouachita Baptist (Ark.), No. 38 Delta State (Miss.) and No. 47 Southeastern Oklahoma State.

The Eagles’ home opener won’t be until April 4, when they host Midwestern State at Oak Tree Country Club in Edmond.

If everything goes as planned, the Eagles will finish the season at the same place they made their 2012 title run – in Mobile, Ala., this time for the NCCAA Championship.

“They aren’t thinking that we’re already good,” Guelfi said. “They are always trying new things, changing things that need to be changed. They are always looking for improvement. That is good.”