There are high hopes around the Virginia men's tennis program this season, as the Cavaliers return their most promising mix of youth and experience in recent memory. With five of the top six players from last year's squad returning and their recruiting class ranked as one of the best in the nation, the Cavaliers are primed to capture the ACC title and earn another bid to the NCAA tournament.
Last season the team posted a 15-9 overall record and tied for third place in the conference with a 5-3 league mark. It was Virginia's best performance since 1984. At season's close, the team's top two players Scott Lebovitz and Bear Schofield were awarded All-ACC honors. Top player Lebovitz, who graduated in May, finished the season as an academic all-American so "his loss will be felt immensely" according to head coach Thomas Johnston. Despite Lebovitz's loss Johnston says this year he "still expects the team to finish higher in the conference and higher nationally."
Fourth-year Bear Schofield is the top returning player from last year and the first player in school history to be named All-ACC twice. He is expected to play in the top doubles and singles positions this spring. "Bear has enough talent to be one of the top-20 players in the country," Johnston says. "He could easily qualify for NCAAs and win matches there." Nonetheless, Johnston expects more than just solid tennis out of Schofield. "I'm expecting a lot out of him from leadership both on and off the court." Johnston adds.
Third-year Hyon Yoo hopes to maintain his winning ways after solid freshman and sophomore seasons. As a freshman, Yoo led the teams in wins. This year Johnston expects Yoo to play in the #2 singles slot. Since his career began with the Cavaliers, Yoo has consistently improved his game and Johnston anticipates that this season could be a "breakthrough year" for him. "He used to be only a grinder," Johnston says. "But now he can come in and stay back so he will be an even better player this year than he has been in years past."
First-year Brian Vahaly, considered by many to be the top recruit in the nation, will contend with Huntley Montgomery for the #3 singles position. He sustained an arm injury that set back his performance in the fall, but Johnston is confident that Vahaly will be back in the swing of things come spring. According to Johnston, Vahaly "arguably has the best backhand in the country. His strokes are solid, his anticipation is superior and his strategy is one of the best on the team." Once Vahaly fine tunes his serve, Johnston believes he will become one of the best players in the nation.
Another promising newcomer for the Cavaliers, first-year Huntley Montgomery, is also one of the nation's top recruits. Montgomery kicked off his freshman year by winning his first five singles matches in the fall. He is predicted to play at one of the top four singles slots. "Huntley has unbelievable anticipation, lightning quickness and great doubles skills," Johnston says. "Once he builds up his upper body strength, he could easily become one of the top players in the country."
Justin Smith, Kent Koch and John Winter will compete for the final two singles positions, making the bottom of the Cavalier line-up formidable. Fourth-year Justin Smith looks to rebound from inconsistent seasons in 1996 and 1997, during which he unknowingly suffered from mononucleosis. "I think with his health returning Justin could play anywhere between #2 and #6," Johnston states. An extremely versatile player, Smith gives Johnston the flexibility to play where ever he's needed in the line-up. Last season he saw action action at every position except #2. "He has improved quite a bit and I feel good about playing him almost anywhere in the lineup because no one is more versatile than he is."
Third-year Kent Koch returns to contend with Smith and Winter. According to Johnston, "Kent has a strong forehand, great volleys and remarkable speed. He is a solid all-court player and that makes him a strong candidate for the #5 or #6 spot."
Second-year John Winter will also compete for that #5 or #6 singles position. "He is definitely our most improved player," Johnston says. "He is very versatile and his ground strokes have improved significantly." As long as Winter works on consistency, he will see the playing time he deserves, according to coach Johnston.
Fourth-year Aaron Strimban will join the coaching staff this year after returning from a semester abroad in Czechoslovakia. Strimban, who competed for #6 singles last year, plays in the same mold as some of the other players on the team so Johnston believes he could provide valuable coaching input. Adding depth to this year's team are second-years Nick Acquavella, Chris Chatham and Jeff Dawkins, and fourth-year Andy Nessen. Johnston also wants to keep an eye on first-years Tommy Croker and Brian Hunter, both of whom he expects could make contributions at any time.
The three doubles teams also give Virginia the strength it needs to win. Schofield and Smith will pair at the #1 position, while Montgomery and Vahaly, and Winter and Yoo will start at #2 and #3. Chatham and Koch, and Croker and Hunter will provide the Cavaliers with consistent depth.
The primary strength of this season's squad should be its winning combination of experience and youth. Add to this three great doubles teams and the Cavaliers can claim the ACC title their own. "At this point it's everybody's dream to win the conference championships and compete for the national title," says Johnston.
After advancing all the way to #15 last March in the Rolex Collegiate Tennis Rankings, it looks like this year dreams could come true.
Last year Virginia produced its best ACC performance in 13 years as the team finished the season tied for third in the conference and defeated six nationally ranked teams. Last season also marked the men's first invitation to the NCAA tournament in school history. Before Virginia had sent individual competitors, but never the entire team.
Entering the spring, Virginia is ranked 31st nationally and Johnston is optimistic that the 1998 squad has all the ingredients necessary to stand their ground and join the nation's tennis elite. "This year could be our year," according to Johnston. "We have one of the top recruiting classes in the nation, stellar facilities and the kind of team leadership that could carry us a long way."
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A 1985 graduate of UVA, White worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch until July 2009. He was honored six times as the state's Sportswriter of the Year.
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