It has been an up-and-down struggle for the Stanford men's tennis team this season. The Cardinal is ranked an uncharacteristically low No. 41 in the nation after completing a regular season with just a 12-11 overall mark.
Nonetheless, the Cardinal will be making its 35th all-time NCAA Tournament appearance when first -round competition gets underway Friday. Stanford will square off against No. 20 LSU at Pepperdine University in Malibu.
Stanford earned an at-large bid after navigating through a brutal schedule featuring eight opponents ranked among the top-20. The Cardinal also finished fourth in one of the nation's most difficult conferences, boasting top-five clubs in UCLA and USC. Quality wins over opponents such as Texas Tech, BYU and Washington (twice) built a strong case for the postseason.
Regardless, this season has been significant in providing Stanford's freshman class invaluable playing experience. Rookies Nolan Paige, Maciek Romanowicz, Trey Strobel and Anthony Tsodikov all have played key roles at one time or another this year, pressed into action after losing senior regular Matt Kandath (injury) and All-Americans Bradley Klahn and Ryan Thacher (graduation).
The improvement of Stanford's newcomers from the start of the season has been clearly evident to anyone who follows the team. Three of the Cardinal's last four losses have resulted in competitive 4-3 nail-biters against No. 44 Oregon, No. 7 Pepperdine and No. 18 California. Additionally, Stanford performed much better the second time around against UCLA and USC, two programs ranked among the nation's top-five. What makes it even more impressive is that Stanford has done it with a lineup that includes three freshmen, two sophomores and a junior.
The 2012-13 campaign has especially represented a learning experience for Stanford's four rookies, a close-knit group with different backgrounds on and off the court.
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Paige has successfully handled the pressure that comes along with playing No. 2 singles. You're inside the stadium, usually facing a ranked opponent and most likely matching up against an upperclassman.
"In high school tennis, I would get win after win," said Paige, a native of Fairfield, Conn. "Sometimes maybe I wouldn't play well, but I would come away with a win. So, it's been tough at times not consistently winning as much at No. 2 because you might lose some confidence. Overall, I know it's going to help me out in the long run. It's been a great building year and I've learned a lot already."
Paige comes from a tennis background (his father, Ed, is the head coach of the men's and women's tennis teams at Fairfield) but was also a versatile two-sport athlete at Hopkins School, where he lettered three seasons in basketball and served as team captain during his year.
Ranking second on the team with 20 overall victories, Paige opened eyes immediately in the fall as Stanford's best player and someone who could play high in the lineup. In his first career tournament, he defeated fellow rookies Romanowicz and Strobel on the way to winning the Aggie Fall Invitational title. Two weeks later, Paige reached the semifinals of the ITA Northwest Regional Championships, highlighted by a straight-set win over Washington's Kyle McMorrow, who is currently ranked No. 13 in the country.
Paige, who has maintained a national ranking for the last two months, has benefited from Romanowicz competing right next door at No. 3.
"Maciek is so positive all the time and so energetic," said Paige, who has been slowed recently by a back injury. "We're also in so many classes together, so his attitude rubs off all the time. It's nice looking over there to the next court and seeing him battle because that gives me more energy in my match."
Stanford head coach John Whitlinger says: "Nolan is a great kid, always has a smile on his face and really buys into the whole team thing. His tennis should really improve even more, now that he's playing full-time. He isn't afraid to go for a shot and moves pretty well. The fall season he had proved to us that he is someone who can play at this level. Even in matches he hasn't won, I think he feels there were little things he could have done to change that match. Nolan is a guy who wants to be serving for the match and welcomes pressure situations. That's what you want and not all guys are like that. Playing No. 2 is showing him what high-level tennis is all about."
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As if the transition from high school to college tennis wasn't enough, Romanowicz has had to make the cultural adjustment from Warsaw, Poland to the United States.
"Sometimes I still experience problems with the language or slang and it's difficult to understand," said Romanowicz. "But it's definitely been a great year. Although it has not been easy for me, the help we get on campus from tutors, academic advisors, trainers and coaches has been incredible. You ask a question and get the answer. I had never experienced that coming from Poland, where schools are a little different and the support mainly comes from family."
Romanowicz has played at four different positions in the lineup, settling in primarily at No. 3. He owns an 18-18 overall record and is 10-11 in duals but has also provided the clincher in three matches, including the deciding point in Stanford's critical 4-2 win over Washington in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 Championships.
"I didn't expect to play No. 3 singles, but as freshmen we had an opportunity to step up and play high in the lineup," explained Romanowicz, who lives in the same dorm as Strobel. "I truly believe we are getting better. What helps is we are a bunch of friends, even off the court. We eat together, study together and spend time together. Of course, we all want to play, but we are friends and just want everyone to get better."
It's easy to see why Romanowicz, who finally chose tennis over soccer at age 11, has bought into the team concept that is so prevalent in dual-match play.
"What I liked about soccer, is you are not alone on the pitch, but instead surrounded by 10 other friends who want to score a goal or win the match," said Romanowicz. "In juniors, you mainly play for yourself unless it's Davis Cup. With college tennis, you are a team. It doesn't matter if I win and my friends lose, because we lose. This is why I am kind of emotional, especially in doubles. I want to win and score a point for Stanford, but my win doesn't matter if we don't win as a team."
Whitlinger says: "We've tried to keep a closer eye on him, making the transition from Poland. But Maciek loves Stanford and what it means. When he came on a recruiting visit, he started reeling off accomplishments and honors from the history of our program. Things that Dick (John L. Hinds Director of Tennis Dick Gould) or others had done. I thought 'Wow, this guy has done his homework and really gets what this thing is all about!' You know Maciek is going to give 120 percent every time out there. He has one of the better volleys on the team and his hands are really soft up at net, which you see in doubles. Maciek is very professional and so close to breaking through. I see him being a team leader in the future."
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When you play matches away from the stadium courts and often against lower-level competition, holding down the No. 5 or 6 spot of the lineup doesn't usually come with a whole lot of fanfare.
But Strobel has embraced his role on the back courts, which have been a key area for Stanford during its recent strong play down the stretch. Strobel, who shares the team lead in victories (21) with sophomore John Morrissey, has won eight consecutive matches overall. He's compiled a 15-4 record in duals, chalking up a 5-2 mark at the No. 5 spot and a 9-2 ledger at No. 6. He's talented enough to play higher, but at the moment gives the Cardinal a dependable option lower in the lineup.
"Obviously there is a little more energy from the crowd inside the stadium," said Strobel. "I've sort of found a way to locate that energy in my matches. Also, my footwork has made a big difference for me recently. But our depth has been so big for us in both singles and doubles. That's how we've been able to fill in despite having injuries."
In doubles, Strobel has paired with Paige to form Stanford's only regular all-freshman pairing. The duo had not played together prior to arriving on The Farm, but Strobel and Paige have been an effective option at the No. 3 spot, going 8-3 overall and 6-1 in duals.
A native of Bradenton, Fla., Strobel enjoyed success at the junior level, just like the other members of this year's freshmen class. Strobel has quickly learned what's needed to compete on the Division I stage, in addition to adjusting to college life.
"One of the main things is getting use to playing in adverse conditions, especially playing on the road," said Strobel. "Having a ton of school work to do, managing your sleep and free time. Really just coming up with that energy you must have to compete at your highest level."
Whitlinger says: "Trey had a decent fall but really worked hard and got after it over the holiday break. He has embraced that part of the lineup. You need a guy that can go out and play in the lower part of lineup and be successful. Playing No. 5 or 6 in this day in age is different than what it was 10 years ago, because these lineups now are deep and talented. Trey is a lefty with a big game who likes to move forward and play north-south. His ball has a lot more action than people think and he's starting to hit his serve bigger and generate some free points off of that. Trey is traditionally known for his doubles, but I think he's doing a great job for us in singles and becoming more confident and consistent."
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Tsodikov hasn't seen the same extended playing time in dual matches as his first-year counterparts, but he's made the most of his opportunities.
Whitlinger has shown no hesitation inserting Tsodikov into the lineup, beginning with Stanford's first- and second-round contests of the National Team Indoor Championships back in January.
One month later, Tsodikov was called upon again during a road dual match against California after an injury to Kandath shook up the rotation. Stanford lost that match 5-2, with its only scoring coming from the doubles point and a 6-4, 6-3 victory from Tsodikov on court six.
"I know that it's going to be important for me to always be ready," said Tsodikov, who attended St. Ignatius in San Francisco. "The coaches want us to stay ready and play hard in practice. I was playing a lot of exhibition matches earlier on. That can be tough when everyone else is playing in the lineup, but I honestly felt like those matches really kept me ready. Hopefully if I keep practicing hard, there will be more chances."
Tsodikov owns a 5-5 record overall, but four of those victories came during tournament play in the fall.
"The Battle in the Bay was a really good tournament for me, especially being able to play back home with my club," said Tsodikov. "I reached the semifinals in Davis (Aggie Fall Invitational) and lost to Maciek in a tough three-setter. I got a chance to play a lot during the fall, which is what I really wanted."
What opponents immediately notice about Tsodikov, who stands 5-7, is his signature two-handed stroke from both sides. Whitlinger jokes that with Kandath set to graduate, the Cardinal needed another two-hander on the roster.
"It's just always been part of my game since I was young and it's what I do," said Tsodikov. "When I was 12, I tried to switch over to one. Ever since, my game has been all about grinding and using the two-handed on both sides."
Whitlinger says: "Anthony isn't the biggest guy in the world but he has a lot of heart. He's two-handed on both sides, works very hard and is constantly trying to get better. Anthony can be a rough guy to play in certain situations. I'd like to see him improve this summer so he can be a factor next year. He is a guy who had a pretty good junior career. You don't think he can cause a lot of damage, but is difficult to play because he gets a lot of balls back."