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2003-04 Preview
Revamped men's tennis lineup capable of defending America East title

Binghamton University head men’s tennis coach Michael Starke has been on quite a rollercoaster ride since his team’s NCAA tournament berth last May, and after a few steep descents, he now has his squad looking squarely upward as the 2003-04 year begins.

Last spring, the Bearcats captured their first America East Championship with a riveting run in April. Binghamton capped a seven-match win streak with a 4-3 victory over rival Stony Brook in the America East championship match — gaining the program’s first NCAA Division I post-season bid. The team then watched on ESPN2 as the national tournament bracket was unveiled. But after 11th-ranked Minnesota eliminated BU amid an exciting and memorable atmosphere, Starke’s summer was turned upside down.

In addition to the losses of graduating seniors Brad Davidoff (No. 2) and Brad Sherwood (No. 4) from the starting lineup, sophomore phenom and No. 1 Akshay Rao announced he was transferring to Columbia. Rao, the America East Player of the Year, had spearheaded BU’s 17-win campaign and was quite simply the best player to ever don a Binghamton tennis uniform. Facing the prospect of having to replace three of his top four players, Starke sprung into action. When the ride was over in late summer, he had produced three international recruits with outstanding credentials. Now with six returning players and the three aforementioned newcomers, the Bearcats are poised to defend their conference title.

“Our team has a very new look,” Starke acknowledged. “At first glance, we do not appear to be a team likely to repeat or even be one of the top teams in the conference. But this team will be the most serious and hard-working group I have ever coached. Bringing in three international students gives us a new and exciting look, and I think they will surprise many opponents. Our returnees bring the experience from last year, which is invaluable. Collectively, they all have the desire to take their individual games to the next level, and defend what they believe they earned last year — the conference championship.”

Israeli import will take over top spot
Freshman Dan Hanegby will step into the top singles spot vacated by Rao — and his credentials are even more impressive than those Rao possessed. Hanegby was the top-rated junior player (18 & under) in Israel and won two Israel national championships in 16-under and 18-under age groups. He played on the ATP circuit and achieved a world ranking of 1130th in 1999.

“Dan brings an explosive baseline game, terrific passing shots and great competitive intensity to our program,” Starke said. “His vast tennis experience, including competing in several ATP events, along with his military service brings the maturity and toughness of a savvy veteran to our program. With the departure of Akshay, Dan has big shoes to fill, but he is ready for that challenge.”

Sophomore Richemn Mourad transferred from Murray State University (Ky.), and also has a wealth of talent and experience. The 6-foot-2 Brazilian is expected to jump into the lineup at No. 2 singles. He was ranked in the top 25 in Brazil on the junior circuit, and also has ATP tournament experience. In 2001, he played in four national tournaments in Brazil, and also competed in several international Futures tournaments. At Murray State last year, Mourad played fourth and fifth singles, going 11-6 overall, including a 5-1 conference record. He also played both number two and three doubles, helping the Racers advance to the Ohio Valley Conference title match.

“Richemn is a great addition to our program,” Starke said. “He has big classic South American strokes off both sides, and hits hard with big topspin. In addition, he has an excellent first and second serve, and has the ability to venture forth to net. Richemn is quick, explosive and hungry.”

After an outstanding spring semester, Edwin Gerard returns and will be a force at the No. 3 singles spot. The Queens, N.Y. native won six matches in the spring, including two huge victories over Stony Brook. His three-set comeback victory against the Seawolves in the America East championship provided the Bearcats with a critical point in BU’s narrow 4-3 win. Gerard also went 7-3 at third doubles in the spring.

“Edwin’s talent and guts shined during conference play last spring,” Starke said. “In my estimation he didn’t receive his due credit. Perhaps no one worked harder on his game and conditioning this summer than Edwin. Training and playing several tournaments have given him a much clearer sense of his game plan, and much needed confidence in his tremendous talent. He is invaluable to the team, and his success is crucial for us to be a good team.”

Senior captain Steve Spencer is expected to move into the No. 4 spot in his final collegiate campaign. Last year, he played primarily at sixth singles, where he provided several big wins down the stretch. During BU’s seven-match win streak in April, Spencer went a combined 10-2 in singles and doubles. His 6-1 singles mark included wins over Hartford and Stony Brook in the America East Championship, where he earned all-conference honors for going undefeated. Starke has been impressed with Spencer’s increased level of play, leadership and confidence.

“Steve has gained confidence through his tremendous play in last spring’s post-season,” Starke said. “He is now playing with an intelligence, calmness and confidence that I have not previously witnessed. He is taking his captaincy, and his final year with the chance to defend a conference title very seriously. This could be Steve’s year.”

Sophomore Brian O’Connor enjoyed an excellent freshman season, posting an 18-12 singles record mainly at No. 5 singles. Like classmate Gerard, O’Connor saved some of his best tennis for the late spring run, when he won nine of his last 10 matches, capped with back-to-back victories and all-conference honors at the America East Championship. O’Connor’s 16 dual match victories were second only to Rao, and included three wins up at both third and fourth singles.

“Brian had a dream freshman season,” Starke said. “He has added arsenal to his game this summer, specifically bringing on his serve and consolidating his backhand. Brian now has a classic all-court game and I expect big things from him. He will be a threat at any position he plays.”

Junior transfer Juan Garcia is likely to play No. 6 singles. Garcia was a two-year starter for Division II national power Lees-McRae College (N.C.), helping that program advance to the NCAA tournament in 2002 and 2003. A former top-12 junior in his native Peru, Garcia was Lees-McRae’s most improved player as a freshman, then went 10-6 at No. 4 and No. 5 singles last spring. He was 5-1 in conference matches, and also played third doubles for the 18-6 Bobcats.

“Juan has a steady game, great foot speed and a lot of heart,” Starke said. “While his game does not contain the explosiveness of Richemn or Dan, he is our most consistent baseliner and plays with great intelligence and heart. Juan will be a tough out at the 5-6 position.”

Rounding out Starke’s eight-man squad are junior captain and doubles specialist Krishna Vallabhaneni and senior Rodrigo Valle. Vallabhaneni provided a huge spark with his team-best 16 doubles victories, and his spirit and competitiveness seem to lift the team.

“Krishna’s doubles play is outstanding, and has been a big factor in our success. He embodies the spirit of this team.”

Schedule blends invitationals, tough duals
The schedule features high-level tournaments hosted by Cornell and Army, and duals against the top teams in the region, in addition to conference play. The fall season begins with a traditional match against Central New York foe Ithaca on September 4. The Bearcats will have four duals and three tournaments in the fall, concluding with the ITA East Regional on October 17-21. The spring season begins at the Army Invitational on Jan. 31, and ends some 12 weeks later at the America East Championship, held at the Connecticut Tennis Center in New Haven.

“Our schedule reflects our growth as a team, and presents several exciting and challenging matchups,” Starke said. “We have a good mix of levels in our schedule, and most importantly we feel we have a great opportunity to gear up for the conference tournament.”

Like a year ago, the month of April will be most critical, as BU faces all six America East opponents, with tournament seeds on the line. America East newcomer Maryland, Baltimore County will be a strong contender, having won four straight Northeast Conference titles before departing for the America East this summer. Starke also expects 2003 runner-up Stony Brook and four-time conference champion Hartford to be serious threats.

“With the addition of UMBC, our conference is stronger than ever. UMBC has a high quality program and an excellent coach. Every coach in the conference is trying to upgrade their program, and it will be another exciting year of tennis in the America East.”

Defending America East title a priority
Despite an overhauled starting lineup and only one senior on the roster, Starke believes his team can still rise to the level of his 2002-03 squad.

“As a coach I am really looking forward to this year,” he said. “Coming off such a successful season we have a clear goal — to defend our conference title and qualify for the NCAAs again. Good teams win here and there, really good teams establish a consistency, and great teams build a legacy. We were a good team last year, but would like to take the next step. That’s a big challenge ... an enormous challenge ... but a clear one, and one we won’t shy away from declaring. We want to repeat.”

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