Bradynn Belcher, contributor

Freshman Aiden Beoualid and junior Fant Smith practice outside Richards Gym. The men fell short in their season opener but anticipate that a large roster will help them end with a better record than in the 2022 season. Kristen Tucker | Campus Carrier

The Vikings men’s and women’s tennis team kicked off their seasons on Monday against the Warner University Royals at the Rome Tennis Center at Berry College. The women dominated Warner University in dominating fashion, winning 8-1. The men began their season with a tough loss, trailing the Royals with a score of 3-6.

Competing in the Southern Athletic Association (SAA), the women’s team concluded the 2022 season with an impressive 6-1 record in conference play. The men’s team was not as competitive, finishing with a 1-6 record in the conference.

The outcomes of last season cannot be used as an accurate gauge to predict results of the current season. Both team’s rosters underwent significant changes during the off season. Graduations, injuries, recruitment and academic issues have all played a role in forming the final rosters that will represent the Vikings this season. 

The women’s team has the smallest roster depth since the 2018-19 season, with 10 players. Out of all 10 players, only two are freshmen. Captain of the women’s team Angelle Thornton, a junior, said that a majority of the team being veterans is beneficial because most of the players know what the expectations are for being a successful student-athlete at Berry.

“For the most part, everyone’s done it at least once,” Thornton said. “We have a lot of juniors and a lot of sophomores, so nobody really has that first and second semester school anxiety like a lot of freshmen may have. I think that makes everybody socially a lot calmer and they are in a better headspace to move forward and compete.”

The unique roster size has positively impacted the team chemistry. Thornton said that her teammates do not feel pressure to emphasize team bonding activities because they are already friends.

“Because we have the smallest team I’ve ever had since being here, it’s really interesting because everybody is really close already,” Thornton said. “Usually, when we are moving into February at the beginning of the season, we are still trying to bond and do different activities whereas this year, we are doing stuff outside of practice because we want to, not because we are trying to grow, but because we are genuinely friends.” 

Much like their records last season, the men’s team is sitting in a completely different spot, roster-wise, than the women’s team. Last season, the men competed with nine players. This season, the men are equipped with 14, four of which are freshmen looking to make an immediate impact. Men’s team captain Connor Murphy, a senior, said that he wants to push all 14 players to be intentional and compete because that will make the team better.

“I want to be intentional about encouraging everyone, starting and not starting, to continue to give their best effort at practice and workouts because only six to eight people play in the matches, but we are all part of a team,” Murphy said. “The harder that we work collectively, the better we do.”

Coach Clay Hightower leads both the men’s and women’s teams. Hightower said that he anticipates that the freshmen on the men’s team will make them much more competitive than in the past few years. The women, on the other hand, dominated the conference last year, but will be much more competitive with conference matchups this year. Hightower views this season as a rebuilding year for the women, but he is confident that the upperclassman will seize their opportunities at making an impact.

“We have gone through the wringer with our women’s roster, so it will be a rebuilding year for our women,” Hightower said. “We have a handful of juniors who have been working hard for three years that have not been able to get in the lineup, so we are excited that they are going to get the opportunity. We are looking forward to seeing them get opportunities to help the team.”

Hightower is entering his 32nd season as a tennis coach. In his 32 years of working with tennis athletes at the collegiate level, his goal as a coach throughout the season has remained consistent. Hightower aims to push every player to their fullest potential.

“To me, it is always about getting the most out of every player in singles and doubles, and for everyone to reach their potential,” Hightower said.

The men and women are set to play their next match against Christian Brothers University on Feb. 11 at the Rome Tennis Center at Berry College. The Vikings will begin SAA conference play against Oglethorpe University on Feb. 24 at 2:30 p.m. at the Rome Tennis Center.

Posted by Campus Carrier

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