A year after a depleted Southwestern University Pirate men's tennis team scraped its way to a 13-8 record, the group entered the 2018-19 season with new expectations.
Early graduation cost the 2017-18 iteration key players, pushing some into roles ahead of schedule or in positions they were never expected to be in. Alexis Dimanche benefited most, earning All-America honors and a trip to the NCAA Championship Tournament in his sophomore season at the No. 1 position.
The Pirates entered this season with a battle-tested group and a breakout season from Dimanche in their back pocket, the 16th-ranked recruiting class in Division III, and four-star transfer Alexander Joseph from Division II St. Mary's University. The talent influx paid immediate dividends, placing four players in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) Regional quarterfinals in the fall after never having two advance that far in the same year, setting the bar for the 2019 team season.
"Expectations were extremely high," Head Coach Billy Porter said. "This year's men's team was kind of the reverse of last year's team where we didn't have the same level of talent so we could just put our heads down and work hard free of pressure. This year's team was about tailoring expectations and managing personalities."
With new expectations came new challenges, placing a target on the team in ways it had not experienced before; a revelation that came early in the academic year.
In one of those four ITA Regional quarterfinals, Dimanche found himself in a tough match against Hardin-Simmons University's Alex Hunt. After dropping the first set, Hunt pushed Southwestern University's French All-American to a third set, dropping to his knees in celebration after walking away with a 6-4 win to take the match.
"The kid fell over like he'd just won the French Open," Porter said. "It was a big realization of the bullseye on Alexis' back after becoming an All-American last year."
And so began a new transition period in the men's tennis program, being targeted more than it had ever been accustomed to while chasing bigger game than it previously hoped to.
The Pirates ended the season 16-5, finishing second in the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference (SCAC) championships and achieving the highest ITA ranking in program history at No. 28 before settling in at 30 in the finals rankings.
On paper, the Pirates reached new heights this season. Instead of looking down to see how high they'd climbed, however, the story of this season was the men looking up at the ceiling their potential still affords them.
Southwestern opened the season with an eight-match winning streak. The early success may have papered over some glaring weaknesses, with the Pirates dropping seven doubles matches over that time; something the Pirates' trip to California would expose immediately with an 8-1 loss to eventual national runner-up and then-No. 3-ranked Bowdoin College Polar Bears.
"Going into the spring, we had a softer schedule heading into the prestigious Stag Hen Invitational, which the guys were excited about all year," Porter said. "Bowdoin took it to us pretty good but I think that's what our team needed and we actually got a big win in No. 2 doubles with Alex Joseph and Dean Dulthummon."
The Pirates went 1-2 at Stag Hen, picking up a victory over No. 31 Swarthmore College and losing to No. 26 Skidmore College. Before heading home, they dropped another match to No. 34 Redlands. Southwestern returned home for a 7-2 win over Wisconsin-Eau Claire but were then swept 9-0 by No. 17 Trinity University.
"Though it was 9-0, it was a lot closer between the lines," Porter said. "At the end of the day, it was still a loss but I told our guys I thought it was the best thing that could've happened to us.
"Our doubles IQ wasn't where it needed to be, we were reacting, playing more from a defensive position and when we played stronger teams this was exposed. It was never that we got completely blown out, it was just all the little things adding up. We had to change our ways."
The season was a lesson in the discipline and attention to detail needed to compete at the highest levels for a team with only one senior and little experience on a national stage.
"This team ran more than the previous three teams combined," Porter said, alluding to one of the tools many coaches use to help instill discipline. "But it was also one of the closest teams I've ever coached."
Talent and chemistry are things coaches can't instill. One has to be recruited and the other arises organically.
"One thing that was impressive about this group is they all loved the team," Porter said. "They took it to the next level with what a top 25 needs to be in regards to investment."
The Pirates pushed themselves internally as much or more than they were driven by opponents. They took advantage of the new state-of-the-art PlaySight camera tracking system, studying more film than any previous team. They also started a new tradition with the clinch belt, passing along a professional wrestling style championship belt to the player who clinched a victory each match in increasingly silly fashion.
"It was the most ridiculous thing but it added a lot to the team," Porter said. "It was a fun part of the season."
The culture of unity was set, in part, by the leadership of Alonso Fernandez, the lone senior on the team. With more depth than ever, Fernandez's role on the court fluctuated wildly even as his role as team captain was increasingly leaned on off of it.
"A lot of our guys talked about him in our one-on-one interviews after the year. He was the perfect team captain," Porter said. "Alonso is one of the most positive people to ever come through the program and was a bridge to our first years, showing the discipline needed to be a good student-athlete."
His leadership style was a stark but necessary contrast to Dimanche, who arrived on campus a ready-made player and student-athlete.
"Alexis holds guys accountable and Alonso brings that approachability," Porter said. "Alexis came in ahead of the maturity curve and never struggled with the little things but Alonso worked his way into being a straight-A student and competitor, so he was a little more relatable."
That's not to say Dimanche hasn't worked to overcome his own struggles. In his junior year, Alexis' biggest battle was with expectations, finishing the season 10-5 while taking a set off reigning singles national champion Grant Urken of Bowdoin and defeating Redlands All-American Chase Lipscomb in two sets.
"Alexis had an interesting year. He had some big wins but just didn't sustain it," Porter said. "I think he really wanted to get back to the NCAA Championships and squeezed it too tight, but the moments of greatness are there."
Dimanche earned All-SCAC honors and finished ranked No. 48 nationally by the ITA and No. 9 regionally, where he was joined by first year teammate Hunter Bajoit, who finished ranked No. 25.
Bajoit went 18-4 at the No. 2 singles spot and 14-9 at No. 1 doubles in his first season, winning the SCAC Newcomer of the Year award and All-SCAC honors.
"The biggest part of Hunter's success is he just loves tennis," Porter said. "He works hard and wants to get better.
"On his official visit, he looked at me and said his goal was to play No. 1. I laughed with him understanding we had an All-American returning but he really surprised me. He has a long way to go in terms of growth, maturity, and discipline but overall he was a nice surprise for us in singles and I'm very excited to see where the next few years take him."
Alexander Joseph was the third Pirate to receive All-SCAC honors, finishing 13-3 from the No. 3 spot in singles and 14-4 in doubles, including 10-3 in the No. 2 position.
That core of talent and in-season growth helped the Pirates recover from the Trinity loss to reel off a six-match winning streak without dropping a single set. The SCAC semifinals match against Austin College showcased the team's growth, quickly squashing any opportunities the Kangaroos had on their home court.
"We were down 3-6 at No. 2 doubles and 2-5 at No. 1 and were able to come back to sweep doubles, which really took the life out of Austin College," Porter said.
The championship match against Trinity University offered one final look at how far the team had come and where it still needs to go, falling 5-0.
"We had opportunities against Trinity, dropping a tiebreaker," Porter said. "You don't get into a tiebreaker with a talent gap. Trinity just knows how to win, how to make all the little things add up.
"The maturity part will come with time but you can't fit that into a nine-month period. Now we have something to build on and a better idea of what it takes to convert matches like that."
The Pirates entered the season with new expectations and learned what really mattered was setting new standards. Standards of discipline and standards of excellence.
"We had the highest ranking in school history and most of our guys are coming back," Porter said. "We should have a bright future."