The nationally ranked Francis Marion University men's and women's tennis teams will both open their 2014 seasons on the road at Barton College on Saturday afternoon. First-serve is set for 1 p.m. in Wilson, N.C.
Long-time Patriot head coach Garth Thomson welcomes back five letterwinners from last year's 23-4 women's squad that ended the year ranked 13th in NCAA Division II. The 23 victories equaled the program's single-season record and FMU made its seventh national tournament appearance in the past eight years and advanced to the regional title match for the seventh time in that span.
Over the past six seasons, the FMU women own a combined 112-29 mark, with 16 of the losses to opponents ranked in the Top 5.
The Patriot men's squad has seven returnees from last season's 15-9 team that was ranked 18th and earned a sixth consecutive NCAA Tournament invitation, its 17th in the past 19 years.
Entering the 2014 campaigns, the Francis Marion women are ranked 12th and the men 17th in the ITA pre-season national polls.
Heading the returning women is junior Julia Graf, who was recently named to the 2014 Peach Belt Conference preseason All-Conference Team. Graf compiled a 19-2 singles mark last season at the No. 2 and 3 positions, including a 9-2 record in conference play. This season she will move up to the No.1 singles spot.
Graf and sophomore Nora Westbye will play No.1 doubles. Graf posted a 21-5 doubles record at the No. 1 position last year and earned first-team All-Conference honors, but that was paired with now graduated All-American Mona Blauen. Graf and Westbye are ranked 16th in the 2014 preseason ITA doubles rankings for NCAA Division II.
Graf and Westbye reached the finals of last fall's USTA/ITA Southeast Regional Tennis Tournament by winning four matches in the Doubles A Flight. Graf also reached the Round of 16 in the Singles A Flight before being eliminated.
Leading the men's returnees are juniors Gavin Davison (11-8 singles mark), Marius Wahlier (13-6), Eimon Heywood (8-10), and Luke Bateup (7-4) and senior Tim Ruepke (8-10). According to Thomson, Davison is the choice to take over the No.1 singles spot. Ruepke and Wahlier will occupy the No.1 doubles role.
Two freshmen, Richard Ashford and Jannik Roettlingsberger, have joined the squad and will be looked to for immediate contributions.
Wahlier won four matches to reach the Singles B Flight title match in last fall's USTA/ITA regional, while Ashford won three matches to advance to the quarterfinals of the B Flight.
"This year's squads are blue collar teams that work hard and play hard," said Thomson. "We have a good core of returning players on both sides, but when you lose your No. 1 player on each, there is an aura of uncertainty heading into the new season.
"I am excited about our incoming freshmen. They are both good people and good players. They will be given opportunities early, but how much they contribute right off the bat will be determined on how quickly they advance, improve, and adjust to the college game.
"Julia and Gavin are both ready to move up and assume the No. 1 positions. The first five matches will include experimenting with the rest of the line-up as we look for the order to shake out. This will be especially key as we have been limited in our pre-season time on the court due to recent cold and wet weather.
"The beauty of tennis is that it is an individual sport, and if you perform, you get the opportunity to play."
In his 21 seasons at the helm of the Patriot programs, Thomson has amassed a 299-150 men's record and a 286-170 women's mark.
Following Saturday's matches, both Francis Marion squads will play at North Greenville University on Thursday at 2 p.m. The home opener for FMU will be Feb. 8 against Erskine College at 1 p.m. on the Kassab Courts.
For the second year in a row, Francis Marion and the Dr. Eddie Floyd Florence Tennis Center will serve as hosts for the Peach Belt Conference Tournament. This year's event will take place April 17-19.