By Nate Tenopir, Sports Editor
A season ago Mike Saniuk took the reins as the head coach of the UNO men’s tennis team and coached the Mavs to their best finish in three seasons of play. UNO men’s tennis went 9-9 in 2010/2011, and made it as far as the semifinals of the MIAA conference tournament.
It was the furthest the program had ever gone in the postseason. It was also the first time UNO men’s tennis finished at or above .500.
That improvement stood out enough that Saniuk was named the head coach for both the men’s and women’s tennis teams last June. Bill Nichols, the only head coach the women’s team ever had, retired earlier in the month and the Athletic Department didn’t have to look far to find a replacement.
Now as the tennis season gets into full swing, UNO tennis prepares to transition into a new era, both in leadership and competition. The Mavs will take on a schedule mixed with Division I, Division II and smaller schools as well.
“I’m looking forward to the challenges and actually seeing what our team can do,” Saniuk said. “The opportunity that it presents us is great. It’s great for the tennis community in general here in Omaha as well.”
Saniuk welcomes back a team made up mostly of upperclassmen and brings in just five newcomers. There are eight seniors and six juniors, split evenly between the men’s and women’s team, and three sophomores in the men’s program.
“They’re (the upperclassmen) gonna bring leadership,” Saniuk said. “The experience is the biggest thing. We’re gonna be playing a bunch more experienced players going into Division I.”
“The people that are coming back are gonna have a ton of playing experience playing bigger and better players. They will be on court helping us prepare mentally for the extra work that’s gonna go in off the court and on the court.”
Of the five freshmen entering the program, three are joining the women’s team and two are on the men’s team. Three of the newcomers are from Nebraska and the other two were recruited out of Iowa.
The women’s team welcomes in Alex Tran from Omaha Central, Jacqueline Baude from Papillion-LaVista South and Rachel Pierson from Red Oak High School. For the men, Connor Larson is from McCook High School and Nathan Greteman joins the Mavs via Kuemper Catholic in Carroll, Iowa.
“Alex Tran is by far a clear cut number one,” Saniuk said. “She’s established herself as someone who’s gonna be playing in the top spot, playing doubles for us.”
“Connor Larson is super athletic, and he’s a great tennis player. He’ll be playing high in our lineup. Connor went his whole junior and senior year in high school not losing a match. He’s one that I have high hopes for.”
But with a very veteran squad and newcomers ready to step in and make a difference right away, that doesn’t mean Saniuk is looking at 2012 as anything more than challenging. The men’s team gets just five matchups at home while the women have seven. Both squads go on the road for competition 10 times.
“The main thing we wanna get out of this season is to use it as a stepping stone to know where we have to go to be competitive in the Summit League and with the rest of the Division I schools around here,” Saniuk said. “As long as we can gauge the performance of the men’s and women’s team with the other schools around us, that’s how this season is gonna be most successful.”
That’s not to say that the season doesn’t come with goals. After Saniuk was named head coach several months ago, he and his teams defined what they would see as a successful season.
The schedule lends itself very well to providing measuring sticks along the way. The men’s and women’s teams both play some future Summit League opponents as well as other Division I schools outside the conference.
“We’ve got an opportunity to play some Division I teams where we know on paper we probably shouldn’t win the match but that’s why we go out and play it,” Saniuk said. “So we’re looking to obtain at least a Division I win which is the biggest thing.”
“Whether it’s a Summit League team or another conference doesn’t really matter. But that’s the main goal each team has come up with.”