Putting together a winning season in college tennis is equal parts science and sport.
East Carolina head men’s tennis coach Shawn Heinchon has to know enough about upcoming opponents to rank his players in the singles position with the best chance for victory. Doubles pairings require close attention to chemistry between personalities and playing styles.
As Heinchon tinkers with those elements throughout the regular season, ideally each dual match adds power to the equation so that the team can present the best possible formula when the conference tournament rolls around in April.
The men’s team, which kicked off its spring season last weekend with a 4-3 win over Presbyterian College, has a roster of talented players who are close to the same level, Heinchon said. Unlike some years, with consistent top-rung players throughout the season, these Pirates will move to different spots week to week, even if NCAA tennis rules dictate that they only move up one or down spot from the place they played in the previous match.
“We’re not in a boat where we have two or three superstars, or two or three guys that we’re worried about playing,” Heinchon said. “We have nine guys who are not too far from each other. That’s a good and a bad thing from a coaching standpoint.
“The equality of our lineup keeps pressure on, especially the 4, 5, and 6 guys because the players behind them are quite good, So they’re forced to do well. The players will tell you that pressure is a bad thing, the coaches will tell you it’s the greatest thing we’ve got.
“Ultimately, you want your players to feel like they’re forced to get better to either keep their position or gain position.”
Heinchon had a good look at his team throughout the fall tournament season with competition at Elon, North Carolina, UNC-Greensboro and Wake Forest, but the new year brings a refreshing return to their home courts. Since they started competing at their own indoor facility in the space shared by Next Level Training Center six years ago, the Pirates have had an easier time scheduling home matches during the winter months.
On Sunday the team will compete first against Winthrop University, an ECU tennis rival that defeated the Pirates last season, and then face Chowan University in the afternoon. After a February 3 contest at Davidson, the Pirates will have four consecutive home matches against Hampton, Longwood, Temple and N.C. Central.
“This is what I really value about our schedule – we play a ton of matches that if we play well, we’re going to win and it’s going to be super close,” Heinchon said. “If we play a little bit under our level, we still have a chance, or we might lose and it will be super close. So we’re in a position where all the little decisions and all the things that happen have a really big effect on the end result of our matches.”
The squad’s two seniors – Kasey Countee and Freddie McGeehan, who transferred from Utah as a junior – are setting the pace for the younger players by virtue of their experience and maturity, Heinchon said.
Countee, who played at the No. 3 singles spot and the No. 1 doubles spot with McGeehan in the most recent match, said that as one of the team’s leaders he has been able to help the younger players navigate the different elements of collegiate tennis. At the college level the game is more team-oriented, he said, so players cheer for each other during matches and stay more connected to what their teammates are doing.
“It’s about being more vocal and knowing that everybody’s out for the same thing,” said Countee, who came to ECU from Cheltenham, MD. “We’re all pushing each other in practice, which helps a lot.”