When you win the national championship, other teams come gunning for you. But Coach Matt Knoll's men's tennis team is well armed to withstand the assault. After all, the team still boasts the presence of Benedict Dorsch, the 2004 ITA National Player of the Year, and Benjamin Becker, the 2004 NCAA men's singles champion.
"We have a good blend of youth and experience," Knoll said. "It is nice to have guys back who have had success, but it also stirs things up a bit to add youthful enthusiasm to the group. We know that our returning players will continue to get better, and our new guys are everything that we hoped."
Of those returning players, Dorsch and Becker lead the way. Both were absent from campus during the fall semester -- Dorsch to play as an amateur on the international professional tennis circuit and Becker to mend a broken hand that he suffered while playing soccer last summer.
"Dorsch is doing well in that he is playing a lot of tennis," Knoll said. "He is not playing as well as he hoped, but I am glad he is getting out and playing. Becker's hand is recovering nicely. He is playing tennis but was having trouble with his two-handed backhand. It's not perfect that he wasn't able to play during the fall, but if you are going to be hurt, then fall is the time."
The other returning starter is Matija Zgaga, a sophomore from Slovenia. Zgaga, or "Ziggy" as he is called by his teammates, earned All-American honors in doubles and was named All-Big 12 in both singles and doubles for the 2003-04 season. During fall 2004, he won the singles title at the Baylor Intercollegiate and started with eight-consecutive wins before losing at the ITA Central Regional. He and newcomer Lars Poerschke combined for the doubles title at the ITA Central Regional.
"Zgaga was hurt a little this fall and was not at his best. But he still had a very good fall," his coach said.
Always a good judge of talent, Knoll added two impressive players in fall 2004 -- Poerschke, a freshman from Germany, and Michal Kokta, a sophomore transfer from Prague.
Poerschke had an outstanding fall, not only winning the ITA Central Regional doubles title with Zgaga but also taking the singles title. Kokta was a world-class junior player against such stars as Andy Roddick, but burned out, hung up his racket and enrolled at the University of New York at Prague. Knoll reawakened Kokta's zest for the game, however, and believes that once he gets rid of the rust, he can be one of the best players in collegiate tennis. He also carries a straight-A average in the classroom.
At the beginning of the spring semester, Knoll also added recruits from Russia and New Zealand and a transfer student who is ranked among the Top 50 college players. "The guys we are bringing in will make an immediate impact on our program," he said.
The whole team gathered for the first time after Christmas when the players and coaches journeyed to New Zealand for nine days of preseason training. The NCAA allows athletic teams to go on one international trip every five years. Knoll said the trip offers an important bonding experience for the team.
"Going to New Zealand will give us a great opportunity to build a bond with each other," he said. "Our success will depend a lot on what kind of team we develop into. So it will be really important for our team to develop an identity early. We will spend a lot of time trying to do that."