SALISBURY, Md. – The Salisbury University men's tennis team enters the 2017 season with more bodies than in seasons past, and an abundance of talent.
The Sea Gulls return only four players from a year ago – two of which saw action in more than four matches last season – but with nine new faces on the roster to build a 14-man squad.
"For me, with 17 years under my belt, there's an exciting part of a young team," Head Coach Randy Halfpap said. "It's a little more of a challenge and it keeps me on my toes."
The top of the lineup will see a pair of freshmen taking control, with a third potentially coming into the mix. First-year players Colt Williamson and Ian Siew have held down the top two singles spots and teamed up for the No. 1 doubles spot as well through the opening weekend of the year.
"I can't think of a time that we had a freshman play at the number-one spot throughout the year," Halfpap said. "And now, our top two are freshman. That's exciting and the reason why they're there is because I think they can handle it mentally – from their junior careers, they have that mentality of wanting to play the best. And they have the game to back it up, as well."
Williamson is a throwback player that will frustrate opposing players, having not seen his style of play from many other young competitors these days.
"He likes to come to the net and change grips, he wants to be forward and volley," Halfpap said. "But he can stay back and with the one-handed back hand, he's more of an old-school player. But he has the right mentality, he's a very good competitor."
Williamson has paired early in the season with Siew and the duo won their first two doubles contests, but Siew brings a different approach, with more power to the mix.
"His forehand is a great weapon and it can be really dangerous," Halfpap said. "If Ian is on, he is really tough to beat. But being a freshmen, our job as coaches is to try to make sure he has more days on than off. That's been something where we're trying to be sure we are practicing every day with that intensity instead of just trying to turn it on during match days."
The Sea Gulls have been without freshman Matthew Ryan to begin the season due to injury, but the local product, when healthy, will battle for time near the top of the lineup in both singles and doubles play.
Senior captain Grant Hudson has taken on his leadership role and will be key for the young Sea Gulls going forward.
"He's been doing a great job of being the captain and being a consistent personality on the team," Halfpap said. "We have some outgoing individuals and some more introverted players and Grant does a great job of getting all of the guys together, particularly off the court and spending time together. Then practices are fun with a lot of energy and that all comes from Grant with his personality."
In action, Hudson has been in the middle of the lineup early in the year, playing at No. 3 singles and No. 2 doubles with freshman Patrick MacLean, following Hudson's 9-8 singles campaign in 2016.
"He is a team player, he knows he can play anywhere in the lineup," Halfpap said of Hudson. "He knows right now that the number-three spot is where he is, but he could potentially be moving and he'd be comfortable wherever he's asked to play."
Hudson heads a group of players that will battle for time this season, as Salisbury's third through ninth positions could shuffle quite a bit.
"It's one thing to have a bunch of young guys that we have to develop and work into the lineup," Halfpap said. "But for us, it's getting experience and knowing we have strong players, it's now finding out what works best for our team."
With the amount of talent vying for time, the Sea Gulls' lineup will likely shuffle a bit over the first few weeks of the season, with the hopes of narrowing in on a regular lineup by the team's trip to California over spring break in late March.
"It's getting the correct players and putting them in the right order as far as doubles combinations," Halfpap said. "We're definitely still looking at who should be playing and where. They are still so new, and right now they're neck-and-neck."
Rainger got time at the fifth and sixth spot last year, while beginning 2017 at No. 6, but the others are all new faces to the roster. Malave and MacLean were in the starting lineup twice this past weekend, while Niessner and Tiafoe got into one of the team's three matches, but the shuffling is a pattern that may continue as the coaching staff assesses the best situation for the team going forward.
The Sea Gulls opened the season at home and have a front-loaded schedule with matches in Salisbury, in part thanks to the ability play indoor matches, though the weather has cooperated to allow the team to spend a great deal of time on the outdoor courts.
Salisbury will play four matches at home this weekend on February 24 through 26 before getting on the road and beginning Capital Athletic Conference action on March 10.
The Sea Gulls make the California trip in late March and hit the majority of the CAC schedule in April before contending in the CAC tournament which begins on April 14.