North Central Men’s Tennis learns from both triumph and heartbreak

Donate Today Buy This Video

North Central Men’s Tennis look to build off the successes of las season

After a brief schedule in September, the North Central Men’s Tennis team returned this past February with a senior-laden team focused on repeating last year’s triumph: a first CCIW championship in 61 years and first ever team qualification to the NCAA Division III Men’s Tennis Tournament.

“We still have to be the hunters, we can’t be the hunted,” said head coach Ryan Jump. “And, you know, I think we used that in the fall really well and springboarded trying to figure out what we’re going to do with who and where and how and, you know, I think we kind of used that as best we could at the end of the year.”

“You know, some pressure coming in from last season because we want to, you know, be repeating champions of the conference again,” said sophomore Matthew Sengphommachanh. “There’s a lot on the line and I think we all kind of felt about the same time. It motivated us as well and we were pretty hyped to get back into it and start, you know, seeing how our new freshmen were doing, our new transfers were doing, just excited to be back to the team again.”

“As a senior, I think you have a lot of role for, you know, leadership and teaching, like not teaching, showing all like new people how the team works and our dynamics and stuff,” said Javier Suarez Balsera. “So my purpose this year was to kind of like to have fun and, you know, give my legacy to the next generation.”

Becoming battle-tested to prepare for the postseason

In preparation for another run at a conference title, the Cardinals played a very difficult non conference schedule, which included two different then-number-one-ranked opponents. They may have not won those two particular matches, but those experiences helped sharpen them as a team for the difficult tests they would face in the postseason.

“You get to see how they train, how they act, how they play, like their composure, their game plan,” Sengphommachanh said of playing difficult opponents. “You can see all these things about the number one team, and that’s something that I think we should admire, something we should take and learn from. It showed us that we need to be more intense, more energized and, you know, in order just to get to those spots as well. “

“You schedule as hard as you can non-conference to make the conferences as smooth sailing as it possibly can be and you know, you get to the conference tournament and anything can happen,” said Jump. “And if you’re fortunate enough to make it through, then you know, it kind of helps yourself with seeding and things of that nature.

Regular season success, but falling one match short in the CCIW Men’s Tennis Tournament

The CCIW men’s tennis schedule largely went to play for the Cardinals, who amassed a 6-1 record in which their only loss came by a single match. For their efforts, Suarez Balsera, Sengphommachanh and Ramon Villaroig Martinez were all named to the All CCIW teams. But after defeating Elmhurst and Wheaton in the first two rounds of the CCIW Tournament, they fell by the narrowest of margins yet again as Carthage claimed the title with a 5-4 victory.

“I think we’re pretty, pretty intense,” said Sengphommachanh of what allowed the group to be successful for much of the year. “It’s pretty competitive and I think the team chemistry is pretty good in practice and outside the court. And I think that’s what helped us, you know, form like a little brotherhood and like a good relationship on the court. And I think that propels us to trust each other more and just overall play better.”

“To put it bluntly as possible, I mean,  you’re a handful of points, not games, you’re a handful of points away from being top 35 in the country or, you know, maybe not even making it to the Saturday of the conference tournament,” said Jump. “this is probably the deepest the conference has been in the last decade. And we kind of knew that coming in this year. … But it’s really important that, you know, our message, especially going into next year too it’s razor thin and you got to come every day. And I think that the group that we have next year is going to be beyond prepared for that. 

“In tennis you got to be really disciplined,” Suarez Balsera said. “And what you do come in every day with whatever your best is and keep working and keep working and keep grinding. That’s how you get better. It’s really good when you win together, but also teaching them that losing is normal, it’s okay. But the most important part is, you know, losing together and feeling that somebody’s supporting you. If you lose or you win, whatever that might be.”

Ramon Villaroig Martinez selected to national singles tournament

However, the Cardinals would still be represented at the national tournament in Orlando! Villaroig Martinez became the first Cardinals men’s tennis player to qualify in singles for 12 years, posting a 17-5 record before falling in the first round of the tournament.

“Really cool opportunity for him,” said Jump of the junior. “Really cool opportunity for our program. But, you know, he’s a bulldog. You know, we kind of have an expression in our program. We talk about bulldogs and poodles in terms of how you look and how you act and what you do and what you’re about. And he’s been that all year. And, you know, he went down and made the most of his opportunity. And I think it kind of hungers him a little bit to push for next year. And at the same time, I think it’s going to make our team better too.”

Suarez Balsera reflects as most of team looks to next season

The majority of the Cardinals’ leaders and experienced players aren’t going anywhere, with the exception of Suarez Balsera who recently graduated. Thus, a team that has collectively experienced both joy and heartbreak will carry the lessons of the last two years into what will be the final year for many of the players who have helped raise the team’s goals and expectations.

“It’s four years, especially in my experience since the first day, I’ve gotten along with a group of people and, you know, I’ve gotten through these challenging four years with them,” reflected Suarez Balsera. “I’m just going to miss a lot, just being with them. I know the team is really fun. Road trips, competitions. I know I’m going to miss a lot, but the people is going to be the most important for me.”

“They experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, literally 52 weeks apart from each other,” Jump said of the team. “And it stings. But I think at the same time, I think what’s the most important aspect of it is you don’t want to feel that way that you felt on April 29th again. You know, how personal do one make the summer, how personal you want to make the fall, so when you come back and it’s go time in January, you know, it’s showtime.”

“Even though we didn’t win conference, I think we had a pretty, pretty good season in terms of accolades,” Sengphommachanh said. “We had one player qualify for nationals. And also I think just the fact that we lost the championship this year, it makes us hungrier. So next year we’re for sure not going to take anything for granted. We’re going to take everything serious because we don’t want to be on the wrong side of things again.”