By Nate Tenopir, Editor-in-Chief
It will be months before Nebraska weather will allow any tennis outdoors, but on Sunday the UNO men’s tennis team got their season underway indoors at the Hanscom Brandeis Tennis Center, and the women aren’t far behind.
The men are coming off a season in which they finished 6-13. The ladies went 7-12 in 2011-12, but at one point were 3-11 before winning four of their last five matches.
It’s a new season with many new opponents and many fresh faces, but the goals remain the same.
“Getting better, improving each day,” Head Coach Mike Saniuk said. “Building better players to increase the program.”
Saniuk took over as the head man of both programs just over a year and a half ago. He led the men’s team in 2010-11, a year after being an assistant on both staffs.
Saniuk played his college tennis at UNK, earning a letter all four years of his career. Twice he helped the Lopers reach the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Division II tournament.
Saniuk is a native Nebraskan, hailing from Bellevue. He graduated from Gross Catholic High School where he and the Cougars won the 2000 Nebraska Class B state championship.
That championship pedigree and Saniuk’s work in the game made him the standout choice for the UNO tennis programs.
As the men’s and women’s teams progress towards full Division I participation, Saniuk says it’s all about building a team rather than finding a few special talents.
“I hope that I don’t just have to rely on one player,” Saniuk said. “I think there are players on each team that have the ability to step up. It’s just a matter of if they will.”
The Mavs were selected sixth out of six teams in the preseason Summit League poll. Thus, it would seem Saniuk’s work is cut out for him.
But no. 1 singles player from last season Carlos Ramos Salazar returns, and he’ll be helped by the additions of senior Matt Frost and junior Eric McKnight.
Both Frost and McKnight spent last season in redshirts.
“Carlos Ramos Salazar should be one of the biggest leaders on the court and off the court,” Saniuk said. “Matt Frost, it’s his senior year, and I think he’ll step up and lead on the court as well.”
Ramos Salazar returns from a season in which he went 4-15 in singles play as Omaha’s premiere no. 1 player.
In doubles play he went 8-10 including 4-4 with partner Anthony Forcucci and 4-6 with Peter Greteman.
Frost is back as one of the most accomplished players in program history. Currently he is tied with Chase Petersen (2008-2010) for the school record in wins with 19.
In his career Frost has put up a 19-22 record, going 7-7 as a freshman, 3-8 as a sophomore and 9-7 as a junior. Frost has played in the no. 1 singles position 9 times in his career, achieving a winning record of 5-4.
In addition to his success in singles, Frost also holds the record for the best doubles record and most doubles wins in a season at 12-6.
On the women’s team UNO graduated four seniors and had just one junior return. The Mavs have just one upperclassman to go with three sophomores and three freshmen.
Unlike the men’s team, Saniuk will have to look to his youth to provide some of the leadership.
“On the women’s side, my freshman Molly (Matricardi), I think she’s gonna be a great asset to us on the court,” Saniuk said. “There’s a couple of other girls, too. I think Rachel Pierson will be able to step up and help out in doubles and in singles.”
Molly Matricardi comes to Omaha out of McKinney Boyd High School in McKinney, Texas. In high school Matricardi was a four-year letterwinner and a 5A state regional qualifier multiple times.
Rachel Pierson is in her second season with the Mavs coming off a year in which she played singles normally in the no. 4 or 5 position. Pierson went 5-12 in singles and 4-15 in doubles.
Rachel is the sister of freshman Emily Pierson who joins the program this year. The Piersons hail from Red Oak, Iowa where they won back-to-back state championships as a doubles team.
Despite the short roster, the women were picked to finish slightly better than the men. The Mavs were selected seventh out of eight teams in the conference preseason poll.
“Honestly I expect everyone to step up,” Saniuk said about the players on both rosters. “Tennis is one of those sports where you can’t really rely on just one person to step up and take over a match because it’s one against one. You can’t gameplan to defend a certain player to stop someone’s offense. It’s basically my best six players against their best six players.”
Saniuk’s measuring stick for how his top six compare will be the matchups against opponents UNO saw last season. Both teams saw Summit League foes South Dakota State, Western Illinois and Kansas City in 2012.
The men went 1-2, picking up a 4-3 win at Western Illinois while the women matched that mark, also getting their win in a 7-0 domination of the Leathernecks.
Saniuk said that facing the same opponents two years in a row will help him see whether the team is improving or staying the same. If the voters are any indication, most think the program is currently near the bottom of The Summit League.
“It’s to be expected to be voted down there,” Saniuk said. “I don’t like it; I think we’re a lot better than people think we are. But again it’s year one of Division I tennis. All these other schools have had decades of Division I tennis.
I don’t think we’re down there, and I think we’re gonna show people that we’re a little better than they think we are.”
The men will take on 17 matches in 2013 and the women 20. After Sunday’s home match against Arkansas, the Mavs get four more at home before going on a four-match road trip.
But the road trip will be unlike most. UNO men’s tennis will spend its spring break on Hilton Head Island, S.C. and play four matches in four days between March 19 and March 22.
Overall the men face nine opponents at home including three conference matchups.
The women start out with a similar home set on Feb. 1. The ladies play three in Omaha before going on the road for over a month.
They will return to face Creighton on March 29, then face three more opponents away from Omaha before returning home for their final three. The ladies play eight matches in Omaha and 12 on the road.
“My expectations of the team have increased,” Saniuk said. “Academically [and] performance-wise now that we’re Division I, I expect a lot more out of our players on and off the court.
As far as expectations go performance-wise, it just goes back to we have to get better. Eventually it will take care of itself with the wins.”