Another new season, another new challenge for the Valparaiso University men’s tennis program.
A team that has passed every test with flying colors over the last five years – upping the program record for wins in a single season four straight seasons and making back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances in 2016 and 2017 – will meet yet another obstacle this spring.
The Crusaders are first-year affiliate members in the Summit League after winning the Horizon League back-to-back seasons. In an unusual twist, the Summit League features three teams that won regular season conference titles a year ago – Valpo, defending Summit League champion Denver and 2017 Missouri Valley Conference champion and 2018 Summit League preseason favorite Drake.
The men’s tennis season opener is on Saturday against Denver at 1 p.m. CT at Match Point Tennis Club in Griffith. And as always, the Crusaders will be ready.
“We’re excited to be part of the Summit League playing new teams and having the challenge of playing several schools who have been at the top of their conference,” Valpo head coach Jim Daugherty said. “Our players have put in the extra time and are excited about the opportunity to take out the defending Summit League champion in our first match.”
Garrett Gardner (Poland, Ohio / Poland) is the lone senior on this year’s team. A fixture in the program during the impressive turnaround that has taken place in recent years, Gardner is perhaps best known for winning the clinching match of the Horizon League Championship to send Valpo to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history in 2016.
Gardner, who is expected to start the year at No. 5 singles and No. 3 doubles, enters the spring season already sixth in program history in career doubles wins with 59, needing four more to enter the program’s Top 5. He also owns 65 career singles victories, the most among active Crusaders and seventh in program history.
“Garrett has always been an instrumental player in our lineup,” Daugherty said. “His game has continued to improve. His enthusiasm level is high, and I think it’s been infectious for the team. He’s showing great leadership in the way he’s going about practices. I expect him to have a significant impact in both singles and doubles.”
Chad Kissell will take over as Valpo’s No. 1 singles player this season and will team with freshman Kweisi Kenyatte (Detroit, Mich. / East English Village Preparatory) at No. 1 doubles.
Kissell already owns 55 career singles victories, a number that ranks 10th in program history. He finished 7-3 in singles play this fall.
“Chad has put in extra time to get better, and that really shows in his fall results,” Daugherty said. “His work ethic has picked up tenfold. He’s evolved into a much better player with more confidence. I greatly respect that he’s willing to put in the extra work that it takes to shoulder the load at the top of the lineup. He is an outstanding leader on the team as well.”
Redshirt sophomore Brian Pecyna (Glen Ellyn. / Homeschooled) is back after boasting a 12-4 singles mark and a flawless 7-0 dual record a year ago. He enjoyed an 8-3 record in singles competition this fall.
“Brian has worked very hard in the offseason, and that has been evident in the improvement in his game,” Daugherty said. “He has taken care of all aspects, from his fitness to his strokes to his nutrition. It’s paying off on the court.”
Pecyna is expected to own the No. 6 singles slot in Valpo’s lineup for the season opener against Denver on Saturday. Sophomore transfer Gabriel Carvajal (Pembroke Pines, Fla. / Broward Virtual School [Florida Atlantic]) made an immediate impact, going 7-3 during the fall. He’ll start the spring playing No. 4 singles and No. 2 doubles.
“Gabriel has been a great addition to the team,” Daugherty said. “He’s a hard worker and has a solid background in tennis that is showing up in tournament play. He is undoubtedly going to impact our lineup and make significant contributions.”
Brandon Ancona (Belvidere, Ill. / Rockford Christian) will jump to No. 2 singles in the lineup while also joining Carvajal to form Valpo’s No. 2 doubles pair. Ancona went 8-3 in singles action during the fall after going 23-11 in singles play as a freshman, placing him in 10th in program history for singles wins in a season.
“Brandon has made a big leap this year,” Daugherty said. “He is one of the hardest working players on the team. He is consistent with his effort day in and day out, and it’s paying off for him. He’s more confident and competing better. He looks like he’s going to evolve to the top of our lineup, which will help us significantly.”
Franklin Brozovich (Fort Gratiot, Mich. / Port Huron Northern) finished his freshman campaign with an 11-3 mark and a 9-2 doubles record. He went 7-3 during the fall season.
“Franklin continues to work hard and improve,” Daugherty said. “He puts the extra time in – some of the adjustments he’s made in his game have taken him up another level. We expect him to see playing time for us.”
Daniel Langston (Ponca City, Okla. / Ponca City) went 11-3 in singles and 9-5 in doubles last year. He captured six singles wins during the spring season.
“Daniel is a tenacious player who continues to get stronger,” Daugherty said. “He had some great results in doubles this past fall and continues to build on that. He continues to get stronger in every way.”
A pair of freshman have joined Valpo’s program this season.
Kweisi Kenyatte (Detroit, Mich. / East English Village Preparatory) is a key piece of Valpo’s lineup right away, playing No. 1 doubles alongside Kissell and No. 3 singles.
“Kweisi had a slow start, but he is continuing to get better throughout the year,” Daugherty said. “He is a tenacious competitor who is loaded with talent. He will help significantly with both singles and doubles.
Nick Marino (Northbrook, Ill. / Glenbrook North) went 6-3 in singles and 6-3 in doubles during the spring campaign.
“Nick works hard every day,” Daugherty said. “He is very consistent with his work ethic and he’s always willing to put the extra time in. He continues to get better and with his attitude we should see a lot of action from him in the future.”
The Crusaders lost a talented quartet of seniors to graduation a year ago, but this mix of veterans and newcomers is set to make the inaugural Summit League campaign a memorable one.
“It’s always tough losing four quality seniors, but the team has bonded together and everyone has stepped up and shown leadership,” Daugherty said. “That’s always good to see when everyone contributes to the team.”