Stevens: Lobo Men's Tennis Is An Underdog With a Mean Bite
Jan. 19, 2011
Lobo Men's Tennis 2011 Spring Preview
Lobo Men's Tennis
By Richard Stevens -- Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
The underdog role can be a neat thing, but only if you are an underdog with sharp teeth and you have a realistic shot at taking a deep bite into the so-called top dogs growling above you.
Alan Dils` young Lobos have sharp fangs. They can bite and they are hungry to do exactly that in the 2011 Mountain West Conference men's tennis race.
For sure, the young Lobos are looking across at a few bullies on the Mountain West Conference nets, especially No. 38-ranked Brigham Young and No. 49 TCU, the MWC defending champions. The Cougars are loaded and TCU returns four solid seniors and eight players off its 2010 title team.
Actually, the league is loaded. San Diego State enters the 2011 spring battles ranked No. 52 and UNLV will begin play as No. 66. The MWC Championships will be hosted at the United State Air Force Academy, April 27-30.
For sure, the Lobos are underdogs, but not exactly unknowns. They are young, with one senior in Joe Woods. They are coming off a 2010 campaign of 8-12, the first losing mark for the men's program in ten years.
However, the Lobos' youth is talented -- and ready to turn a few heads.
"We are real young," said Dils. "But we're also a year older and even though we took a few lumps last year, I thought all the guys had good seasons and we expect to improve this season."
The Lobos already showed that improvement in a fall season that saw a lot of nationally-ranked players fall to Lobos. "Last year we went into the fall tournaments trying to figure out who we were," said Dils. "This year we went in expecting to win matches and people noticed the difference."
Sophomore Jadon Phillips isn't exactly flying under the radar, but he had an head-turning showing at the USTA/ITA Regional Championship held in Las Vegas, Nev., in the fall. He upset a No. 2 seed to reach the finals in singles.
Phillips will be no surprise to anyone looking over the net at him in 2011. He was the 2010 MWC Freshman of The Year and made the All-MWC team in both singles and doubles last season. He was the first freshman in league history to earn those three awards in the same season. Phillips was joined on the All-MWC team by UNM's Carl Ho, Ben Dunbar and Phil Anderson.
Phillips didn't start the 2010 season as UNM's No. 1 player, but he ended the season that way. It will be difficult for any Lobo teammate to snatch that spot away from this motivated sophomore.
"I think in a way Jadon surprised himself last year," said Dils. "He is such a humble, low-key guy. He's not a beat-your-own-drum kind of player. He would tell us last year that he just hopes he can play division-one tennis and here he is one of the best juniors in the country.
"He is a great player, who listens to what you tell him, then goes out, and works hard to get better. And he's a better player this year. His serve is better. His forehand in better. His volley is better. You put all that together and you expect him to beat more and more people."
Phillips beat a lot of people in 2010. He finished with the team's top record at 21-12. A tennis player is a bit like a baseball pitcher, looking for a 20-win season. You throw a single-digit losing mark at the other end of your record, and you have an outstanding year.
The Lobos' problem in 2010 were a few too many losses. The Lobos had another 20-game winner in Conor Berg (20-10), and UNM had six players with at least 15 wins. The goal in the spring season of 2011 is to fatten up the wins and cut down on the losses.
If Phillips hadn't won the MWC Freshman of The Year award, it could have gone to Berg, who had an outstanding rookie season of D-I tennis and won his final 11 matches.
"It got so we were just expecting Conor to go out and win," said Dils. "He became almost a guarantee. He also is coming back better. He has improved his foot speed and his strength. He had more pop on his strokes and his serve has improved. It's really just a strength issue with him. He's kind of skinny.
"A lot of the guys have improved. Joe Wood is really playing well and probably better than he did last year. Mads Hegelund is pressing to get into the top six and he will see some playing time. Matthew Neeld is always threatening to break into the top six, too."
Dils returns his top six players from 2010: Phillips, Berg, Wood, Carl Ho, Phil Anderson and Ben Dunbar. Another emphasis for the Lobos this spring is improved doubles play. The Lobos went 45-43 in 2010 in doubles.
"Last year we had a lot of potential in doubles, but we didn't really play that well," said Dils. "We got better and it showed in the back third of the season, but this spring we want to start out strong from the beginning. We want to be more dynamic in doubles.:
The Lobos had three teams in the top eight at the USTA/ITA Regional: Berg/Dunbar, Phillips/Anderson and Wood/Ho. Berg and Dunbar reached the semis, losing 9-8.
"We are coming off a good fall where we won a lot of matches that just gives you more confidence in the college setting," said Dils. "We go into the spring improved, more experienced at the college level, and I think the guys have a lot of confidence."
Editor's Note: Richard Stevens is a former Sports Columnist and Associate Sports Editor at The Albuquerque Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.