The Francis Marion University men's and women's tennis teams will open their 2012 seasons on Thursday (Feb. 2) when the Patriots travel to the Tar Heel State to play Mount Olive College at 2 p.m.
Following Thursday's matches, FMU will play at Queens University of Charlotte on Saturday. The Patriot women will play their home opener on Feb. 10 against Erskine College at 2 p.m. on the Kassab Courts.
The FMU men are ranked 14th in the 2012 pre-season Intercollegiate Tennis Association NCAA Division II Top 25 national poll.
FMU head coach Garth Thomson returns four lettermen from last year's 10-8 team that ended the year ranked 17th and earned the program's fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament invitation, and its 15th bid in the past 17 seasons. All eight of the team's losses were to nationally ranked opponents.
However, FMU must replace departed three-time All-American Oshada Wijemanne. "We have such a young squad that I am not exactly sure what to expect in 2012. But that doesn't mean we are without promise," Thomson said. "We have a pair of talented guys to play at the top – junior Alex Caspari (11-4 in 2011) and freshman Gavin Davison – who are ready to break through and have great seasons. Both have a chance to be Top 20 singles players." Caspari is among those others receiving votes in the preseason Division II men's singles rankings. The pair are ranked 19th in the preseason national doubles rankings.
"The starting line-up will include as many as three freshmen and one sophomore. Despite our youth, we have high energy guys who are fresh and hungry. For me, the uncertainty of 2012 makes this an exciting and fun time as a coach. We can only practice so much, so the players and myself are ready to start the regular-season matches.
"Our two returning seniors, Dirk Bair (8-6 in 2011) and Jack Bishop (8-10) have taken over the team leadership role and done an excellent job in that regard both on and off the court. They both want to make their fourth straight trip to the NCAAs."
Freshman Jonathan Hain is another newcomer who will add punch to the Patriot line-up. Last fall, he won the men's singles B flight at the USTA/ITA Southeast Regional Tennis Tournament in Sumter.
"Our first six matches will tell us what type of squad we have as we will face three regionally ranked opponents. The team's goal is to earn that NCAA Tournament invitation."
On the women's side, Thomson welcomes back five letterwinners from last year's 11-7 squad that ended the year ranked No. 30. All seven losses were to nationally ranked teams, including four defeats to Top 10 opponents. Over the past four seasons, the FMU women own a combined 71-21 mark, with 13 losses to opponents ranked in the Top 5.
Leading the women returnees are senior Jitka Gavdunova and junior Mona Blauen, both named this week to the preseason All-Peach Belt Conference team.
Gavdunova is currently ranked ninth in the Division II singles rankings. She was 15-1 in singles play last year at the No. 1 position, was ranked 13th nationally, and garnered All-America honors for the second time in her career. She was also selected as the women's Player to Watch for the Southeast Region, and her lone loss was to the then No.1-ranked singles player in Division II. A native of Vejprty, Czech Republic, she owns a 53-6 career singles record in her three seasons at FMU
Blauen is ranked 20th in the Division II singles rankings. Last season, she posted a 13-2 record and in two seasons as a Patriot is 30-6.
Gavdunova and Blauen are also ranked 11th nationally in doubles. Last season, they were 12-4, and in two years of playing together they own a 21-2 mark in Peach Belt play.
"These two players give us a lot of experience at the top of our line-up – a very solid one-two punch," Thomson said. "Jitka has put in a lot of hard work during her years at FMU and that is paying off. She and Mona really push each.
"For the first time in several seasons, we have good depth on the women's side, with many players battling for the six slots. This will make us very competitive at every rung of the ladder. In addition to Jitka and Mona, we have three other returnees who are ready to win against the top teams in the PBC: (junior) Kerry Hall, (sophomore) Kimberley Hurter, and (sophomore) Caitlin Siney. We have several newcomers who will improve our program, and these are headed by junior Tereza Baranova and freshman Julia Graf." Baranova is ranked 41st in the preseason national singles rankings, while Graf was among those also receiving votes. As a doubles pair, they are also among those receiving votes in the preseason rankings.
"As with the men's team, our number one goal is to play in the NCAA Tournament. We also want to finish as high as possible in the Peach Belt, where the tough competition really prepares you for the national tournament."
Entering his 20th season at FMU, Thomson has directed the FMU women to a 245-162 record, while the men boast a 274-134 mark over that same time. The women have made 10 trips to the NCAAs in the past 17 years.