SALISBURY, Md. – The Salisbury University tennis teams open up action this weekend in a non-NCAA sanctioned event, hosting the Sea Gull Open. It marks the first collegiate experience for a number of players on both the men's and women's team and it also begins a key part of the season where Head Coach Randy Halfpap will need to make some important decisions about where some new faces will play in the lineup.
The men are working around the late departure of a pair of players while the women have a mix of four strong returning players along with a quartet of freshmen.
No matter what the lineups this weekend and moving forward, the Sea Gulls will see a number of players thrown into the fire right away.
Top-ranked singles and doubles player Jillian Poppe leads the four returners for the Sea Gulls, who enter the year ranked No. 12 in the Atlantic South Region, on the women's side. A junior, Poppe is joined by classmates Victoria Handlin, Elaina Iosue and sophomore Charlotte Urian as the four returners.
Poppe, Iosue and Handlin each spent last season playing in the top four singles positions throughout the year and will be the centerpiece for making a run to the Capital Athletic Conference title this year.
"Victoria and Jillian have improved pretty drastically over the past year and are better," Halfpap said. "So not only do they return, but they return better players too."
Poppe posted an 8-4 record in singles play and went 10-4 in doubles last season while Handlin split time between No. 3 and 4 singles, with a combined 9-5 mark.
Iosue is dealing with a slight injury early in the season, but is expected to play near the top of the lineup again after going 3-0 at No. 1 singles and 9-4 at No. 2 singles a year ago.
On the doubles side Poppe is expected to be joined by newcomer Roxanne Alban in the No. 1 slot. The freshman from Annapolis, Md., will be looked to as a highly-seeded singles player as well.
The final two singles spots, and the No. 2 and 3 doubles pairings remain a battle through the remainder of preseason practice as three freshmen – Sam Babo, Allison Lutz and Katie Youlios – will compete with Urian for the remaining spots.
The women play their first three official matches on the weekend of Feb. 24, and the lineup seen that weekend and the one that takes the court the following week could change, with some of the focus being on the inexperience the new players have in the doubles game.
"Whoever works the hardest and begins to grasp the concept of doubles, will be the people that will be in the line-up and traveling with the team." Halfpap said.
The men, who enter the season ranked No. 11 in the Atlantic South Region, have four seniors that lead them into action in 2012. Senior Daniel Barnas, who went 12-7 in singles last season will step up to the top spot and will be looked upon as a leader.
"He's our number one singles player, number one doubles player and our captain, so I think it's natural to look at him as our leader," Halfpap said. "For him, he's been doing really well at three and four singles that last three years. It's a huge difference to step up and play number one, but I think he has the mentality to do well. He's one that can rise to the occasion. I think it's going to be a lot of fun putting him in that spot and see how he does."
Barnas, ranked as the No. 14 singles player in the Atlantic South Region, is joined as a captain by classmates Curtis Quandt and Justin Smith. Quandt played primarily doubles last season and Smith spent most of the year at No. 6 singles, but with two late departures of players expected to be near the top of the lineup, all three captains will see significantly more time in the lineup and be relied upon.
"Last year was big for them and they didn't really play significant time the year before that," Halfpap said of Quandt and Smith. "So now, being able to come in, get some time under their belts and to know their roles are going to be even bigger this year, I think they can't help but be a little more excited about stuff and hopefully they will thrive on the opportunity they're given."
While Quandt and Smith will be in the lineup, their position is still up in the air as a number of fresh faces will battle for playing time leaving question marks in the remaining positions.
"I'm pretty excited to see some of the freshmen or the guys that were just on the outside, playing seven or eight, that now have a chance to step in and play," Halfpap said. "For us, obviously Barnas is a huge favorite to be our number one player, but then from two to eight is a mix; it's really a sort of mystery. Part of that is pretty scary and another part is who's going to be the person who can step up and play higher in the lineup, who's going to separate themselves?"
Freshman Daniel Albers is expected to make an immediate impact, playing near the top of the singles lineup and most likely joining Barnas as the top doubles duo.
Sophomore Demetri Vrahnos was a big recruit for Salisbury but could not play during his freshman year because of injury, and will continue to be nursing a sore wrist early in the year and junior Adam Goldberger will be making his first appearance on the Salisbury roster this spring as well.
Senior Arthur Jackson has posted a 9-1 singles record in two years of action and will also be battling for a spot in the lineup.
Following this weekend's Sea Gull Open each team will get a break to figure out their initial lineups. The women open up at home against Catholic University of America on Feb. 24 and will play two other road matches that weekend.
The men get rolling on March 3, hosting the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and Hood College. With all of the question marks in the men's lineup, Halfpap is happy to have a near two-week break following that day to re-evaluate and potentially make some adjustments before a trip to Haverford College (March 16) followed quickly by the teams' annual spring break trip to California.
Last season, Halfpap felt the women's schedule allowed his team a strong overall record, but they were not match-tested as much as, perhaps, they should have been.
Both teams' schedules feature a number of nationally ranked opponents, looking to prepare them for a run in April at the CAC titles.
The men's team will play three preseason nationally ranked opponents as they take on No. 14 Bowdoin (March 21), No. 22 the University of Mary Washington (March 31) and No. 13 Johns Hopkins University (April 21). The women will deal with five nationally ranked opponents starting with No. 13 Carnegie Mellon (Feb. 26), No. 17 University of the South (March 20), No. 28 Redlands (March 21), No. 24 Mary Washington (March 31) and No. 20 The College of New Jersey (April 14).