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The Bradsher Beat
Wednesday, October 23, 2013

By Bethany Bradsher

Bethany Bradsher

To go where no Pirate has gone before

Joran Vliegen blazes new trail for ECU tennis program

By Bethany Bradsher
All rights reserved.

Sixty-four athletes from throughout North and South Carolina, the best tennis players on their campuses, gathered in Cary last weekend for the ITA Carolina Regional Championship. By Monday, only one was standing – a Pirate from Belgium.

Joran Vliegen, a senior on East Carolina’s tennis team, came into the tournament ranked No. 17 and left as the champion – a first for a Pirate and a fact that he still found hard to grasp later that afternoon when he had returned to Greenville.

“I don’t really know what’s going on right now,” he said. “We left on Wednesday, and suddenly I’m back on Monday, and I actually won the tournament. It’s still not really getting to me. After the last point, I was like, ‘Whoa, what just happened?’ I never really thought about winning.”

Anyone who has watched Vliegen blaze through his fall schedule had a hunch that he could be capable of such an accomplishment. He stands at 14-2 in singles, a stretch that includes seven victories over players ranked higher than him in the preseason and two over opponents in the top five.

With the ITA victory, he earned ECU’s first-ever automatic bid to the National Indoor Collegiate Championships (to be held Nov. 7-10 in New York).

Monday’s 7-5, 6-4 finals victory over UNC-Chapel Hill sophomore Brett Clark was certainly evidence of Vliegen’s development as a tennis player during his collegiate career, but it points even more strikingly to his physical and mental toughness. With seven intense matches over five days, no player can stay the course in an ITA Regional without uncommon stamina.

“It’s a lot of tennis in a short period of time,” said ECU head coach Shawn Heinchon. “And I think it does help the guys who are in good shape both mentally and physically — it gives them a chance to win these types of things. And that’s a big separation from maybe where Joran was a couple of years ago to where he is now, that not only can he play well, he can do it continually over a five-day period.

“Sometimes you have a chance to beat people in any level at any sport just because you think you can.”

Vliegen agrees that his mental toughness and his confidence are worlds removed from his underclassmen years, when he was an international student trying to adapt to a complete change of environment. Both as a singles competitor and with doubles partner Colin Roller, Vliegen has become so accustomed to playing at a high level that he truly believes he can defeat anyone.

He competed in both singles and doubles at the ITA All-America Championships in Tulsa early this month, and he experienced a new level of intensity over the summer, when he competed in some events on the pro circuit.

“I played a lot of good guys and went through that adversity,” he said. “You know you’re going to have tough matches against these opponents. Since Tulsa, I have really believed in myself.”

He passed one of his toughest tests in the quarterfinals at the Cary Tennis Center, when he faced Romain Bogaerts of Wake Forest, the 5th ranked player in the nation, in his second match of the day on Saturday. He felled Bogaerts decisively, 6-2, 6-4.

Since Vliegen has climbed to the top of the Pirate tennis ladder and now made a national impression in his years at ECU, Heinchon has no doubt that the younger Pirate players will be inspired by his accomplishments. And Vliegen, who has adopted Greenville and East Carolina as his North American home, loved the feeling of accepting the championship trophy and representing ECU at the same time.

If that wasn’t satisfying enough, he defeated a Duke player in the semifinals and a North Carolina player in the finals.

“It feels amazing. I’m extremely honored to win this tournament wearing purple and gold and have East Carolina printed on my chest," said Vliegen.

"And to actually do this for a school that I love, it makes it extra special," he added.

E-mail Bethany Bradsher

PAGE UPDATED 10/22/13 11:37 PM.

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