Coach: Tommy Valentini, 4th Season
Location: Saint Peter, MN
2009 Ranking: 9
2010 Ranking: NR
2011 Ranking: NR
2012 Ranking: 26
2013 Projected Ranking: 21
Gustavus Adolphus College is home to one of the richest tennis histories among DIII programs. As you can see from the recent rankings, they’ve dropped off a bit in recent years, but for you young pups, here’s a quick refresher course in Golden Gusties tennis. Coach Steve Wilkinson took up the head coaching mantle in 1971 and compiled a 929-279 record in 38 seasons as head coach. His tenure included two national championships in 1980 and 1982, but his teams also finished in the top 10 for fifteen consecutive seasons from 1994-2009 (though not winning a championship in that stretch). As the late aughties rolled on, his superior development and doubles play could no longer keep up with the superb recruiting of the top schools, and with a senior-heavy class in 2009, no time was better for him to ride off into the sunset. In his wake, he left Coach Valentini with a youthful, untalented roster, and the Gusties immediately plunged out of the top 30.
Despite continuing to rack up conference championships, it looked like GAC might fade into obscurity until Mya Smith-Dennis and Amarik Donkena transferred back to their home state to revive the dying program. The team is currently very much on the rise. They’ve established a formidable recruiting presence in the midwest, and are as good as ever at development and doubles. They’ve also keep National Indoors above water financially, and that seems to be a permanently great opportunity for them to gain big wins on their home courts. Moreover, they seem to be a perennial contender to host a regional because of some of the lesser Pool B qualifiers coming out of the Wisconsin area. Not all is well in Saint Peter, however. They still have to deal with geographic isolation and a talent gap. Nevertheless, now is not a bad time to be a Gustie
Gustavus has an absolutely massive roster, but it’s no secret who the main players will be for them this year. They return their whole starting singles lineup from last years’ breakout team, and it all starts with Amarik Donkena and Mya Smith-Dennis. Last year, Donkena played #1, but Coach Valentini might switch them this year in light of Smith-Dennis’ ITA victory. The two are pretty much interchangeable. After that, they have Juan Luis Chu and senior Tyler Johnson, who played 3 and 4, respectively last year. Though the middle of the lineup represented a relative weakness in 2012, both of these guys have made tremendous strides, and I expect them to make the big difference for GAC this year. At the bottom of the lineup, they have junior Joey MacGibbon and freshman Bradley Entwistle. Neither appears to be prepared to move up in the lineup, nor is there someone else poised to take their place. Motasam Al Houni or freshman David Brown could sneak in at the bottom of the lineup, but either move would be pretty inconsequential as far as Gustavus’ strengths and weaknesses go.
As with many teams, the only thing that’s certain about GAC’s doubles lineup is their #1 team: Donkena and Smith-Dennis. The duo came within a point of the national championship last year, and they will still be a force at the top of the lineup. For their other options, they return their #3 team from last year of Entwistle and MacGibbon. That will be an option. Additionally, Johnson and Grant Leisner advanced to the semifinals of the fall tourney before falling to Balkin and Osborne. Finally, I’m sure Coach Valentini will be looking to get Luis Chu involved. Doubles should be a strength for these guys regardless, but these pairings are going to end up being very important for them because they absolutely need a lead after doubles to beat one of the big dogs.
GAC might be geographically challenged, but you wouldn’t know it looking at their schedule. After making a trip to Hawaii last year, they will play matches in Texas, St. Louis and So Cal this year go with their Indoors slate. Not bad at all. Anyways, they start their season in two weeks (on the 6th) with matches against Trinity and Tyler in Texas. It was an interesting decision for Valentini to elect to play outdoor matches two weeks before Indoors, but it should be a remarkable opportunity for his team. Nothing in their recent history suggests GAC is ready to beat Trinity, but the Tigers might be vulnerable this year. Nonetheless, I would like the Gusties’ chances much better if they played them at Indoors. The match I’m really excited for here is against Tyler. The Patriots have many hugeadditions this year, as I’ve been saying, and this is about as good an opportunity as they’ll get to make a statement. Improved though GAC may be, I actually think Tyler will come away with that one.
Indoors, however, is GAC’s true time to shine. Though GAC gave Emory their best match of the regular season at Indoors last year, I would expect Emory to roll through that first round match. After that, things get interesting. They could get a rematch with Trinity, or, more likely, a match with a deflated UC Santa Cruz. This is their best opportunity to pick up a big win at their home tournament, and I will be seriously looking forward to that one. If they were to lose that one, they would likely get NCW, which is a team they really should beat this year. After last year’s win over Chicago, it would be incredibly disappointing for them to walk out of Indoors without a win this year.
Moving on, they host Wisconsin-Whitewater on March 9th. Whitewater is really hot-and-cold, but GAC clearly has a slight edge on their regional rivals. That should still be a very good match. At the beginning of April, GAC makes its annual pilgrimage to SoCal. Gustavus has a Spring Break that is much later than most, so the only teams remaining in California at this time are the teams that actually live there. They play Redlands on the 3rd and P-P on the 5th. Though their match against P-P went 6-3 last year, they never really gave the Sage Hens a scare. Their only legitimate chance to move up the rankings that week is against Redlands. It’s been a while since we’ve seen a good GAC-Redlands bloodbath, but that match has some pretty epic potential.
Starting on the 13th, they have a nice little two-match road swing against Chicago and Wash U. Obviously, the Bears are out of range, and Chicago is ranked below them, but that would be a nice match to win anyways. The Maroons will be looking to avenge their loss at Indoors last year, and their match with GAC is their only real chance to move into the top 25, so that will be a huge one. Finally, they will win their conference and wait for their NCAA fate. They usually get a favorable draw, and on the right day, they could shock someone like Wash U and advance to the Elite Eight. That’s about the best they could possibly hope for, but it’s incredibly unlikely. More likely, they will continue their upward trend in modest fashion and earn a top 20 ranking. I don’t know if they can ever return to the top 10 consistently, but they’re making all the right moves.
(editor’s note: this preview was done hastier than usual, so please excuse me if there are more grammatical errors than usual)