PASADENA (Feb. 6, 2018) – Following a 2017 in which the Caltech men's tennis team held its own in several conference bouts, a strong freshman class has reinvigorated the Beavers as they look to take a step forward this spring.
The loss of long-time first singles player Ruthwick Pathireddy '17, along with doubles-specialist brother Sathwick Pathireddy '17 and Morgan Lebby '17 will be an obstacle for Head Coach Mandy Gamble's young team to overcome in the long run from a continuity standpoint. The Pathireddy brothers are, after all one and two on the all-time wins list in program history, so replacing them will be no small feat. However, Gamble has replenished her team with enough talent to where the 2018 Beavers shouldn't miss a beat and have a great chance to improve on their 2017 win total (5-11, 2-6 SCIAC).
"The 2018 class was ranked 13th in Division III so that gives us the caliber of players that, in time will help us Breakthru at the national level," Gamble said. "These guys are great workers, have tennis IQ and push everyone to be better."
Gamble is referring to Caltech's crop of freshmen, James Wei (Chappaqua, N.Y. / Horace Greeley), Varun Shanker (Midland, Mich. / Midland Dow) and Kevin Yu (Mason, Ohio / Cincinnati Country Day), all of whom will be expected to contribute immediately to this year's team. Wei and Shanker are expected to be fixtures atop the Beavers' lineup and could interchange at first and second singles depending on matchups. Both Shanker and Wei, four-star recruits, competed at ITA's with the former picking up a win over a California Lutheran University player in the first consolation round. All three player enter Caltech with the three highest UTR's on the team, a universal rating that reflects one's play.
Wei and Shanker's biggest contribution could come in doubles, where the Beavers have some room for improvement carrying over from 2017. Improved doubles play could mean an improvement on the team's sixth-place SCIAC finish a year ago. Either way, Gamble's group will have plenty of time to find the proper formula as this year's squad features no seniors, which Gamble views as a positive.
"The 2018 team is a close knit group who wants to get better and are putting in the work to have a record breaking season," Gamble said. "This is a young hard working group that has a lot of confidence in what they can achieve."
Five non-freshmen, fixtures in last year's lineup will be returning for the Beavers and the high-pedigree freshman additions could allow the returners to draw more favorable matchups in singles play. The talented junior Derik Nguyen (Anaheim, Calif. / Canyon) figures to head up the group of returners, as does fellow junior Zixiao Li (Coppell, Texas / Coppell), who holds the Caltech single-season singles wins record (14 - 2015-16). The latter's tenacity has held up well against SCIAC competition, as he pushed a member of second-place University of Redlands to a super tiebreaker last year. Additionally, this duo seems to have stepped up as the leadership battery for Gamble's group.
"Zixiao and Derik have stepped up an been excellent captains this season," Gamble said. "The leadership on the team is very good and I don't think not having seniors changes that. Our team continues to get deeper and being young and getting opportunities to contribute helps us improve and build a stronger team with each passing year."
Rounding out Caltech will be sophomore Miha Valencic (Colleyville, Texas / Grapevine), sophomore Connor Soohoo (Redwood Shores, Calif. / Crystal Springs) and junior Andre Liu (Novi, Mich. / Novi). Valencic (9-4 overall), posted the team's highest winning percentage last season between third singles and fifth singles and should have a great chance to replicate the nine wins if asked to be the team's primary option at fifth singles. Soohoo, meanwhile shuffled in between fifth and sixth singles last and has competed at ITA's in each of his first two seasons. His experience makes him a natural fit in the Beavers' final singles slot. Liu played all over the lineup in 2017 and could benefit from having a more defined role in 2018. Each of the team's eight players should also figure into the doubles equation, even for the two who aren't tasked with playing singles on the given day.
Caltech's new identity of a wide-eyed young team looking to improve each day at practice, in addition to some key new additions has given Gamble reason to believe the Beavers can compete for fourth-place with the likes of Cal Lutheran and Whittier College.
Gamble and the Beavers will open the season at home and in SCIAC play on Saturday, Feb. 10 when they host Pomona-Pitzer Colleges at 10 a.m.