SALISBURY, Md. – The Salisbury University men's tennis team heads into the 2016 season with a strong returning core of players at the top of the lineup, while some returners and new faces will vie for playing time.
The glue that will hold the team together this year is senior Eric Spangler, who has been a mainstay at the top of the lineup in his first three years, playing primarily in the No. 2 singles spot and No. 1 doubles position since joining the team in 2013.
"In regards to stability there's nobody mentally and physically more stable than Eric," Head Coach Randy Halfpap said. "He's one of those players who is not a very vocal leader, but the guys can watch how he prepares for a match or practice, the way he prepares his body mentally and physically – nobody prepares better than he does."
With the graduation of Daniel Albers, now an assistant coach with the team, Spangler is looking at playing the No. 1 singles spot this upcoming season. In 2015, Spangler compiled a 17-1 singles record with one win coming at No. 1.
"He's hungry for it," Halfpap said. "Eric is a great leader and knows what has to get done. Eric had a great record last season and hopefully can do just the same or even better this year."
Returning with Spangler this year is senior Shanon Gunther. Playing at the No. 4 spot last year Gunther is looking to make a move up in the lineup, as well, with four starting singles players not returning in 2016.
"I don't think Shanon is intimidated but more excited to move up the spots," Halfpap said. "And he has Eric to help him as well with the transition. With his experience of last year and with the progress he has made, he's improved significantly, I don't see any way that he wouldn't be playing number two. Shanon brings a lot of energy to the team and has a great personality; he knows how to pump the guys up."
With Gunther and Spangler returning and seeing both of their doubles partners departing the team this year it looks like they will team up at the No. 1 doubles spot. The pair played together in the recent Sea Gull Open, advancing to the semifinal round of the draw.
Although the team was not able to play in the ITA tournament in the fall because of weather issues, it seems as if the men will have some solid new faces in the lineup, as well. Junior Grant Hudson is going to have to fill some shoes this year, having appeared in just six matches in 2015. With a lot of improvement in the past few months Hudson is expected to play in the middle of the pack for the Sea Gulls.
"Grant is one that has had the most experience, playing a lot of exhibition matches at number seven and eight singles, and when Eric had an injury issue it allowed him to step up," Halfpap said. "He does have some experience. It will be a good chance for him to try to and prove himself this year."
Sophomore Connor Truitt and junior Michael Popielski are a pair of returners who will vie for positions in the latter part of the lineup this year. Truitt got many chances in exhibition matches last year, while a rigorous academic schedule limited Popielski's participation, but the pair has improved in the past 12 months and look for time in the lineup this year.
Sophomore Kelson Weber was on the team in the fall of 2014, but did not participate last spring. He is in line to fight for singles time and is expected to team with Hudson in doubles play at the No. 2 spot.
"Kelson has been around the team for a while and knows what he needs to get done in order to win those matches," Halfpap said. "He has a big forehand and a lot of speed, I'm very excited to see where he can go."
Freshman Andrew Rainger brings an enthusiasm to the team that Halfpap hopes in contagious, getting to practice early, leaving late and being vocally involved in all of his teammates' matches.
"It is fun for us to watch him love and soak up everything at once," Halfpap said. "You can tell that he is going to be a great addition to the team."
Finding a new commitment to the game, junior Bobby Leverich, will be in the mix for playing time this spring, as well.
The early-season schedule offered some more preparation time before the start of official matches, allowing Halfpap more time to analyze the battles for some of the positions beyond Spangler and Gunther.
"The hope is we start really figuring things out around the spring break time," Halfpap said. "Then we can focus on hopefully winning a conference title."
The Sea Gulls open at home this weekend, hoping to play outdoors if the weather cooperates, in the shadow of the new tennis building at the SU Tennis Courts. The new courts were open for play last year, and the additions of the building with a grand entrance way, will take the facility one step further.
"We are excited to show recruits the progress that is happening with the building going on and for other teams as well," Halfpap said. "Last spring our record was great at home and so it should hopefully serve a great home-court advantage and great pride for our student-athletes that are playing on one of the better facilities in the country."
The Sea Gulls went 9-1 at home last year, going 3-0 in Capital Athletic Conference play in the regular season at home to earn the No. 2 seed in last year's CAC tournament.
The men's first home match will be this upcoming weekend against, Juniata College on Friday, February 19 and two days later, they will host Bridgewater (Va.) College.
Some of the toughest tests on the schedule this year will be in CAC play against preseason-No. 37 Christopher Newport University, in Newport News, Virginia, on April 6, and at home against No. 16 University of Mary Washington, on March 23.
Salisbury will face strong opponents on the team's annual trip to southern California during spring break, facing among others No. 29 Sewanee.
The schedule is set to get the Sea Gulls ready for CAC tournament play, which begins on April 16.