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Trailblazer Tennis Team readies for 30th straight national tournament
 May 10, 2013

VU overcame hurdles to play its best tennis at the right time

The Vincennes University Tennis Team has spent the 2013 spring season much like every other season in the past three decades: taking on all junior college programs – handling nearly all of them – and accepting chances to face off with four-year, Div. I NCAA teams for the learning opportunities and “statement” matches.

The difference for this season’s team as it prepares for VU’s 30th consecutive trip to the NJCAA Div. I Tennis National Championships, beginning Monday at Collin County Community College in Plano, TX, (2013 NJCAA Men's National Tennis Championship) is that only one player has experienced the national tournament before.

A few recruits for the 2012-13 school year opted for programs closer to home just prior to classes starting last fall and the Trailblazer program was left short-handed after planning to have another legitimate run at a national title in sight this spring. As a result, VU boasts one sophomore, Coastal Carolina recruit Erick Bermudez, and freshmen Chris Holcomb, Garrett Mandrell, Warren Kuhn, Harsha Manjunath and walk-on A.J. Steiner.

Bermudez assembled an 11-5 singles record and paired with Kuhn to go 11-4 in doubles this season. Four of Bermudez’s five singles setbacks came against Big 10 foes Illinois, Indiana and Purdue. In the same vein, three of the Trailblazer duo’s four losses were to the Illini, Hoosiers and Boilermakers.

Overall in doubles competition, the youthful VU went a more-than-respectable 23-22 in 2013.

But VU isn’t resting on its laurels and using the small roster and inexperience as excuses. The goal remains the same as the past 20-plus seasons for the Trailblazers, who claimed the national title in 2011. Despite the small roster, Coach Ron Albers said the current crop of players don’t plan to settle for simply reaching the tournament.

“This season has been more of a challenge to get into and stay in the (national) top 10, but the goal all season has been to compete at our best level during the third week of May,” Albers said, adding that the Trailblazers’ May 3 defeat of Grand Rapids in the NJCAA Region 12 Tournament was an indication that things were on schedule for VU. “During that region tournament, that’s where we were – playing at a very high level – and we beat a pretty good team, handily. This group has shown a steady mark of improvement.”

Saying that the Trailblazers have shown steady improvement all the way to the national tournament could be considered an understatement. VU topped Grand Rapids, 8-1, in the Region XII Championship as the match opened with singles and Holcomb earned a 6-4, 6-0 victory at fifth singles, while Mandrell dominated, 6-1, 6-1, at No. 3 singles. Kuhn and Manjunath followed with wins at one and four for the Trailblazers before Bermudez ground out a 6-4, 6-3 win at No. 2 singles to clinch the team victory. Steiner extended his opponent to three sets before losing at six singles.

Steiner and Holcomb recovered from a first set, 7-6(10), tie-break loss in third doubles to control the second and third sets, 6-0, 6-3.

Albers is quick to praise Steiner’s efforts.

“A.J. has been invaluable; in fact, without him, we don’t go to the tournament because you have to have six players (to qualify for the event),” the coach said. “Six weeks ago, he didn’t know he’d even be on the team, let alone play in a region tournament. He battles and plays hard.”

However, that work ethic and level of determination have been characteristic of the entire team, Albers said.

“This group has taken on all the challenges – even after learning that there are lots of things you can’t control,” he added. “It’s a group that, even when they’ve lost to the Big 10 teams that I schedule to see how they compete, they’ve always come back for more. They learned very quickly that we control how well we play, whether we win or lose.”

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