UH teams optimistic about WAC
By Ann Miller
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Ann Miller
With a regular season full of spankings from ranked teams behind them and the WAC bullies just in front, the University of Hawai'i tennis teams both find themselves with nothing to lose going into today's Western Athletic Conference Championships.
The Rainbow Wahine are seeded fifth and play fourth-seeded New Mexico State this morning at the Aggie Tennis Center in Las Cruces, N.M. The winner most likely will get a shot at top-seeded — and 19th-ranked — Fresno State tomorrow. The Bulldogs have all six players back from last year's team, which won its sixth straight WAC title.
The UH men are seeded a school-best fourth and play fifth-seeded Idaho tomorrow. That winner gets top-seeded — and 32nd-ranked — Boise State in a Saturday semifinal. The Broncos return all six players from a team that won its third straight WAC title last year.
Both Hawai'i teams have losing records and ample opportunity to shock someone.
"We've got nothing to lose," UH men's coach John Nelson said. "We have been flying so low below the radar we've crashed and burned a couple times along the way. We are definitely a darkhorse."
His 5-10 team, on the strength of an upset of then-No. 66 UC Irvine, is 92nd in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association rankings. The Rainbow Wahine (6-16) are nowhere to be found after 14 losses to start the season. But they go into WAC having won six of their past eight.
"We definitely had a tough and challenging first part of the season, but it got us ready for the end of our season and the postseason as well," third-year coach Jun Hernandez said. "We've played a lot of top-20 and top-30 schools to get us ready. We know we need to work hard and improve and the girls took up the challenge and worked hard everyday."
Sophie Kobuch is the reigning WAC Player of the Week and, at No. 83, the highest ranked UH woman since the ITA started its rating system. The sophomore from Tournefeuille, France, is the first ranked Rainbow Wahine in more than three years. Her dual-match record is 12-10, with nine of those matches against top-30 teams.
Kobuch has played No. 1 after moving up from No. 3 last year. "I know she's learning," Hernandez said. "She's keeping her journals. Everything we ask of her she does it, no questions."
Still, he calls Slovenian freshman Natasha Zorec the biggest surprise. She started at No. 4 and is now No. 2. Jennifer Goldman is on a four-match winning streak at No. 5 and Chloe Bihag — one of two seniors with Julia Sandborn — has lost just once during this winning streak. She and Kobuch have won five in a row at No. 1 doubles.
The Rainbow Wahine's last two wins came Sunday against Hawai'i Pacific, ranked 17th in Division II, and Chaminade, which won as many matches this season as it had the past five years combined.
The UH men won their final three, ending the regular season with a win over HPU, 17-0 and ranked 10th in Division II before facing the 'Bows. Hawai'i has played seven ranked Division I teams this year.
Nelson, who did not use all his scholarships this season, is hoping to have his third consecutive WAC Freshman of the Year. 'Aiea's Dennis Lajola has been playing the top two positions and is 8-4.
The last two freshmen of the year — Germans Sascha Heinemann and Andreas Weber — have been ranked around 100. Heinemann leads the team with an 18-5 record in dual matches and is on a seven-match winning streak. Weber, last year's ITA West Regional Rookie of Year, is 14-4.
Walk-ons Spencer Mendoza and Craig Faulk have improved enough that they took down Heinemann and Weber in a doubles scrimmage recently. And junior Jeff Fitch was WAC Player of the Week last month, after he won his No. 5 singles match and teamed with Lajola to beat the ITA's No. 36 doubles team.
Hawai'i has reached the WAC semifinals the past two years before losing to Fresno State. That won't happen this time.
"I feel good about where we are," Nelson said. "I have a good feeling heading into the conference championship. We're just going for it."
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