Jan. 13, 2003
by Bo Rottenborn
After guiding the Irish to the Sweet 16 for the fifth time in 2001-02, Notre Dame head coach Bob Bayliss will face a different challenge in 2002-03. Instead of relying on the experience of six seniors, Bayliss will be working with a young Irish team to try to replicate last year’s success.
Fortunately, rebounding after excessive graduation losses is something Bayliss has done before. Take 1994, when the Irish lost five key players who combined for four All-America honors, but were 23-10 and advance to the round of 16 for the fourth consecutive season. In 1997, Bayliss’ Irish, fresh off the loss of six veterans, rose from their preseason ranking of 31st to be listed as high as 11th, posting a 19-6 record. Two years later, the ’99 squad won the school’s second BIG EAST title and finished 17-8 after the loss of four important players to graduation. Bayliss hopes to duplicate his past success this season.
Gone are seven seniors who combined to earn 20 monograms and helped the Irish post a 70-33 (.680) mark over their four years. They returned Notre Dame to the national top 10 after an eight-year absence and advanced to the round of 16 for the first time since 1994. Highlighting the class were four four-year monogram winners: Andrew Laflin, Casey Smith, Aaron Talarico, and Javier Taborga. A year ago, Taborga was an All-American in singles and doubles, with Smith, and was named the ITA National Senior Player of the Year.
“Last year I thought we achieved a great deal,” says Bayliss of the group’s senior season. “We reached a level twice during the year (national ranking of No. 4) where we had never been before. We did it with experience, which was helpful.”
This year’s squad features four returning letterwinners, one transfer and four promising freshmen, as well as a number of returning players who hope to crack the lineup and contribute for the first time this season.
“This year’s team, coming into the season, is one of the least experienced I have had at Notre Dame,” says Bayliss. “But this also is the easiest group of guys to coach I have had in a long time. I think the success we have this year will be because I expect everyone to get along well, to work hard, and to buy into our system.”
Senior Brian Farrell and juniors Luis Haddock and Matthew Scott will serve as the first tri-captains in the program’s history and try to lead the Irish to the NCAA tournament for the 13th consecutive season.
Farrell will be trying to rebound from a season-ending shoulder injury he suffered last spring to regain the form that saw him lead the Irish with 26 victories as a sophomore, playing mostly No. 5 singles. Through three years, he has accumulated an impressive 48-20 record in singles. He will see limited action in the fall before resuming a full schedule for the dual-match season.
“We need Brian to bounce back from last year’s season-ending shoulder injury,” says Bayliss. “He was one of the best No. 5 singles players in the country as a sophomore. I think the frustration of last year’s injury will put the fire back in his belly.”
Haddock also is expected to be one of the keys to Notre Dame’s fortunes in 2002-03, after stepping in as a freshman to play No. 3 singles before playing mostly at No. 4 a year ago. Haddock has had considerable singles success, compiling a 50-16 (.758) career mark. He was one of the major factors in Notre Dame’s outstanding performance last year, posting a 27-6 record.
“Luis has a world of talent, speed to burn, one of the biggest forehands in college tennis, and, at times, a huge serve,” says Bayliss of the three-time member of the Puerto Rican Davis Cup team. “He has the chance to become one of the better college players in the country.”
Scott also will be called on to perform near the top of the lineup for Notre Dame. The Canadian enters the season ranked 85th in the nation in singles after an incredible sophomore season in which he was 32-5, including 24-3 in dual matches, playing mostly No. 5. In his first two years, Scott was an amazing 35-5 in singles dual-match action and 49-10 overall, which is the highest career singles winning percentage for any Irish player under Bayliss.
“Matt has really embraced his leadership role,” says Bayliss. “He has had a remarkable dual-match record and understands that the demands of playing high in the lineup will make replicating last year’s numbers difficult. Still, I expect him to become one of the surprises in college tennis this year.”
Sophomore Brent D’Amico is the other returning monogram winner for Notre Dame in 2002-03. D’Amico was effective in his first season of college tennis, gaining much experience, especially in doubles. He was 16-8 in partnered play, competing mostly at No. 3.
“I think Brent can make the biggest jump of anyone on this year’s team,” says the 16th-year Irish coach. “I am sure he was a little frustrated not getting to play singles much last year, but he did a great job for us in doubles. He has the ability to be a primetime doubles player at the college level. In singles, I expect him to become one of our best players this year.”
Though only four returning players earned monograms for Notre Dame last year, another Irish player on this year’s roster has much collegiate tennis experience. Junior Nicolas Lopez-Acevedo transferred from Bowling Green State University over the summer for his final season of eligibility after the Falcons men’s tennis program was discontinued. Lopez-Acevedo played mostly No. 3 singles and No. 1 doubles for Bowling Green a year ago. He amassed 134 combined victories in three years at BGSU and ranks in the school’s top 10 in career singles and doubles victories.
“Nicolas is one of the most likeable people you will ever meet, a truly exceptional competitor,” says Bayliss. “There is some great tennis ready to jump out at you that he will demonstrate before going to medical school.”
A number of other returning Irish players hope this season will be the backdrop for their individual breakout performances. Among them is Paul McNaughton, who saw limited doubles action last year as a freshman, but may play a bigger role this year.
“Paul could be one of the keys to this year’s team,” says Bayliss. “He is a natural doubles player and his serve-and-volley style extends itself into a singles game where he attacks at every opportunity.”
Other Irish players hoping to crack the lineup include senior Jake Cram, junior Ben Hatten, and sophomores Peter Graham and Jimmy Bass, all of whom have made much progress over their Irish careers and in the summer of 2002.
The Irish also will be helped by a talented group of four freshman, which is expected to make an immediate impact.
Patrick Buchanan was a prep All-American after winning the California state championship last year. He was ranked 30th in the nation among junior players and figures to challenge for a spot in the Irish lineup this season.
Eric Langenkamp, who was ranked 42nd in the Boys’ 18s, also is expected to be in the mix immediately. He was ranked as high as No. 3 in the nation in doubles in juniors play.
Former Russian and Belarussian national champion Sergey Leonyuk trained in Boca Raton, Fla. over the last three years, winning the state title as a sophomore. Leonyuk also had impressive results in International Tennis Federation tournaments.
Rounding out the group is two-time Missouri state champion Steve Roszak, who helped his high school team to three consecutive state titles.
“We have a terrific group of freshman, but it is difficult to predict how they will react,” says Bayliss. “Certainly their junior careers have shown that each is capable of coming in and becoming a starter for us.”
The Irish again will tackle a tough schedule loaded with national and regional powers. The dual-match slate features 17 scheduled dual matches against 13 teams that earned trips to the NCAA tournament a year ago. Notre Dame will have 10 home matches, highlighted by visits from Minnesota, Duke and Illinois, which finished last season No. 4 in the nation after downing the Irish in the NCAA Round of 16. Notre Dame will open the spring with a trip to Las Vegas for the elite National Collegiate Tennis Classic before beginning dual-match play.
The final two months of the regular season figure to be a difficult stretch with Notre Dame taking on ’02 NCAA participants in 10 consecutive matches to head into the postseason, while also heading to the prestigious Blue/Gray National Tennis Classic in Montgomery, Ala. for the 14th straight season. The Irish will attempt to defend their title at the 2003 BIG EAST Championship in Coral Gables, Fla. and hope to gain a 13th consecutive berth in the NCAA Championships.
Facing this schedule, Bayliss and the Irish will benefit from the experience of new assistant coach Todd Doebler, who turned down a number of Division I head coaching offers to come to Notre Dame over the summer after spending the last two years as an assistant at Pepperdine, helping the Waves to a 43-14 record. Doebler replaced 2002 National Assistant Coach of the Year Billy Pate, who was named head coach at the University of Alabama.
“I think all the players are excited for the opportunities that lie ahead,” says Bayliss of the upcoming season. “One of the neat things about this year’s team is trying to figure out who will be our surprises. Last year, I do not think anyone figured Javier Taborga would be the National Senior Player of the Year. Going into January, I did not even think he would be our No. 1 player. To see him grow as he did was terrific. Who is going to fill his shoes this year? Questions like that one keep me awake at night and excited.”