As I always do, I step up when the lights go on. And now that the spring season has basically begun, that means it’s time for me to kick this thing into high gear and start giving you my blogging best. I’m back from a long UMW preview to give you a preview for a team outside of my region, because that’s what I do. Throwback to the days where I mirrored as both ASouth and NE, and you’ll find that I have a ton of capability when I put my mind to it. D3NE loved those days, just ask him. Anyways, I’ll be filling in for NewD3Central here as he’s been diligently working on his Chicago preview, and the season is already upon us. Thankfully since GAC is in the top 20, I know a decent amount about them. Let’s get started.
Gustavus Adolphus is a program with a storied history, but limited recent success, if you will. When compared against their championship teams of years past, one would say that GAC has underperformed as they are consistently ranked in the 15-20 range. However, the DIII landscape has changed since the GAC heydey, and I must say I am impressed with GAC’s performance each and every year. This remote school in Minnesota prides itself on hard-working players who can beast it on both the doubles and singles court. Coach Tommy Valentini has built a rock of a program at Gustavus, and this year could be a defining one for the Gusties. I would be remiss if I did not mention last year’s dream run to the Elite 8, where GAC knocked off a highly talented Chicago team in the Sweet 16 on their home courts. This match qualified as one of the biggest upsets in recent memory, but one that D3Tree will claim he saw coming. What is in store for the Gusties this year? Let’s find out.
Coach: Tommy Valentini, 9th Year
Location: Saint Peter, MN
ITA Ranking: #16
Blog Power Ranking: #14
Team Twitter: @GACMensTennis, poor and sporadic updates but updates nonetheless
Twitter Hashtag: #GoGusties (quite boring but classic GAC)
Lawrence Hiquiana (2 Star, #476), Xavier Sanga (2 Star, #415)
#1 Singles, Mohanad Al-Houni, Senior, 12.55 UTR
Mohanad. Mohanad means family. (shoutout to whoever gets that reference). The younger Al-Houni has long outgrown his older brother’s shadow, and now casts a shadow of his own. We’re talking about the #1 player in the country at this very point in time. Al-Houni continued his stellar career this fall picking up his first ever Small College Nationals win, and GAC hopes that this is a sign of things to come for the senior leader of the Gusties. We all know what to expect from Al-Houni at this point. He’s a favorite in most of his matches unless he runs into a guy like Cuba or maybe even someone like Parodi, but other than that he’s the top dog. Al-Houni is rearing to go for what should be an incredible final season. The most DRAMATIC season of Al-Houni in history.
#2 Singles, Zack Ekstein, Senior, 11.60 UTR
Cue the applause for Mr. Ekstein. Ekstein has arguably one of the biggest wins (and the MOST DRAMATIC WIN) of GAC history, with his comeback three-set win over Erik “Freaking” Kerrigan in the Sweet 16 last year to send GAC into the Elite 8. Despite not being a household name, Ekstein was pretty successful last year at the #2 spot, with nice wins over UT-Tyler and Pomona, but the best one is still going to be Chicago. Ekstein has had a nice story over his career and if his trajectory continues, we could be looking at a top #2 singles player in a perfect GAC world.
#3 Singles, Patrick Whaling, Junior, 11.53 UTR
As we keep going down the lineup, we keep running into GAC success stories. Patrick Whaling is another example of the GAC boost. Remember that when Whaling came to this school, he was a NOT RATED player ranked #784 out of Richmond, VA. Not really the most indicative of great success at the #3 singles spot. Well, Whaling showed his ability to step up last year with a massive win over Charlie Pei in the Sweet 16, followed by him actually leading Hamid Derbani in the Elite 8 at #3 singles. Whaling didn’t have the best regular season, but his postseason performance could show us that there is more than meets the eye when we look at his results. Again, trajectory here is important – if Whaling gets another boost, we’re talking legit #3 singles player.
#4 Singles, Yassine Derbani, Sophomore, 11.36 UTR
The younger and less heralded Derbani looks to be slated into the #4 singles spot for GAC this year, following a very successful year at #5 and #6 singles last year. I think there were rumors (rumors only folks) that Derbani was potentially going to transfer, but lo and behold, we are here in Minnesota reporting live. Derbani pretty much won all of last year, including a marquee win over Peter Leung of Chicago. He was also leading Allen Jackson of Middlebury in the Elite 8. What I’ve come to expect out of Gustavus is a lot of development and no bullshit. Derbani is really a key to the lineup as I believe GAC struggled at these spots last year, so to have him step in and be a consistent point getter is a MAJOR KEY. (WE THE BEST MUSIC).
#5 Singles, Chase Johnson, Junior, 11.20 UTR
Johnson anniversaries his place at the #5 singles spot this year, where he, well, struggled a bit last year. He didn’t really have many big wins other than a super tiebreaker win against Luke Tsai, who later steamrolled him in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. Other losses were to PP, Whitman, UTT, Trinity (TX), Midd (x2), and Southwestern. Again, not the best year for Mr. Johnson and he’ll definitely have to be better this year. As you can see from the above, GAC has a really complete team with very few holes (while they don’t have a ton of WOW positions), which leaves them very little margin for error against the top 10. Johnson needs to make sure he doesn’t make that margin smaller.
#6 Singles, Various Players
The #6 spot will be very interesting this year for GAC. One might think this will be young Tommy Entwistle, brother of ex-GAC great Brad Entwistle, but there are many options here. One thing to note – there is ANOTHER AL-HOUNI! Al-Houni 3.0 doesn’t have a great UTR, but i love the brotherly connection. GAC seems to love players from the same family which is kind of funny. No matter what, Coach Valentini will have his choice of players here at #6 and that bodes well for their competitiveness. I have faith one will rise to the top and become a rock down here at #6.
Ah, doubles. The bread and butter of GAC. Gustavus has historically always put together a tough doubles squad. This starts at the top with the combination of Al-Houni and Whaling, who got 6th in Small College Nationals in what was probably a disappointing result for the long time duo. GAC has a bonafide #1 team and two extremely solid teams at #2 and #3 to put together no matter who plays there, and that is a testament to Coach Valentini’s doubles coaching skills as well as the Gusties willingness to do the little things. I remember a pretty famous tweet from the Guru (too lazy to find it) where he says “GAC up against Chicago in doubles again. I feel like this happens every time.” If you’re always up in doubles against a team that’s normally top 10 in the country, you’re probably pretty good at it. Look out for GAC doubles when Indoors comes around bruh, shit’s about to get real.
Ah, the GAC schedule. A schedule filled with strange matches and central teams only Adam Van Zee has heard of. But also a schedule with many interesting matches on it. Let’s get to the breakdown.
Random Trip to Florida – Tree pointed this out to me, but GAC is randomly in Florida for a week right now playing against non DIII teams. A very interesting way to train for Indoors, but training nonetheless. It’s a bold strategy, Cotton.
Indoor Nationals – A very, very important weekend for the Gusties here, as they will get three cracks at teams that they could potentially beat. Well, two cracks at it. GAC is up against Emory first, who they probably won’t have the firepower to beat even with the home court advantage. However, post Emory they’ll get either Chicago or CMU (probably CMU, who’s looking vulnerable), and one of Trinity TX and maybe Wash U/Redlands. None of those teams scare me in the bubble. GAC gonna make some noise.
Random Central Matches and then WASH U – Because GAC isn’t gonna get enough of Wash U at Indoors (they probably won’t play them honestly), they scheduled their own match against the Bears. It’s at Wash U, which unfortunately does not put the Bears on upset alert, but if the Gusties are a mature team by the time this match comes around, we could be looking at a tight one for sure. This team can do anything in my eyes because of their experience.
Spring Break + Chicago – Pomona and CMS are on the schedule for the Gusties in California, and that Pomona match is something I am watching closely. PP is on the downtrend, with the loss of a few key seniors. GAC is on the uptrend and PP represents that win int he 10-15 range that GAC is looking for. Expect a 1-1 split for the Gusties here because they ain’t beating CMS on the road. After Spring Break, we get ANOTHER match against Chicago which will probably be the first time they play since last year NCAAs. Last year, GAC lost this match before exacting revenge. Could it be more of the same this year?
NCAA Tournament – If GAC hosts again, could we see more magic? My answer is I HOPE SO.
D3ASouth’s 3 Keys to Success
Embrace the Breakthrough – You see it for various teams year after year. Making the top 10 is a process. Just ask Coach Fried and Wesleyan. GAC took a giant step forward making the Elite 8 last year after many years of losing to Chicago in a row. I am a firm believer that once you taste victory at a high level, it makes it that much easier to rack more up. GAC will need to remember the magic that got them to the Elite 8 and translate that to the whole year.
Statement @ Indoors – GAC has a huge opportunity waiting for them at Indoors. The first round of the backdraw against the Gusties is one of the roughest matches a team can play in DIII. You sleep at like midnight, earliest, and wake up at 6 AM to play a GAC team on the road where they can jump on you in doubles. This after coming off a probably tough loss to a rivalry foe in the first round. GAC will draw Chicago or CMU in this match and both present their opportunities as top 10 teams. GAC should be gunning for at least 5th in the tournament – anything less is probably a disappointment in my eyes.
AL HOUNI PARTY – We ain’t talking about just Mohanad. We’re talking Motasem (we actually aren’t) and we talkin MOUAAD. If Mouaad somehow becomes the #6 player, and a good one at that, I would not be surprised if this team is top 10 by the end of the year. That being said, this is relying on the fact that Mohanad is about to slay at the top spot all year round. We all know that this team starts and ends with Mohanad Al-Houni – GAC’s upsets will come when the senior leader wins both of his matches at the top spot in singles and doubles.
I hope you enjoyed my guest preview of one of the Central’s faithful teams, Gustavus. It was my pleasure to do so and I learned a lot from a random team in Minnesota that I sometimes watch but usually don’t pay attention to since they are in Pool A crushing opponents. I’ve always admired GAC, but wow, do I have more admiration now. The GAC train is about to leave the station, so don’t freaking miss it. ASouth, OUT.