Mercer's Herd has February Filled with Tests


Dominika Zaprazna

Dominika Zaprazna

Jan. 31, 2013

By JACK BOGACZYK

HERDZONE.COM COLUMNIST

HUNTINGTON – For his next challenge, maybe Marshall’s John Mercer might want to become an SEC football coach.

The Thundering Herd tennis coach already has a portion of the SEC big-time M.O. down – playing eight at home … and Mercer’s are in a row in the next month.

Mercer laughed Thursday when the comparison was brought up, as his Herd (2-1) opens the Huntington Tennis Club stretch on Friday with a visit by Kentucky (2-0) at noon. Then, after Groundhog Day off, No. 51 Indiana (5-0) comes to the Barboursville indoor courts at 10 a.m. on Super Bowl Sunday.

“Sure, it helps playing at home,” said Mercer, in his 11th season as the MU coach. “It’s like any other sport. You play better on your home courts, or you should. We’ve played two on the road so far (a win at Morehead State and loss at West Virginia) and we haven’t played very well.

“It’s like it’s supposed to be in basketball. What is it, like a 10-point swing?”

And it’s not like Mercer has lined up a bunch of pastries for home feasting.

Kentucky, with a roster that includes former Cabell Midland High star Stephanie Fox “isn’t ranked yet, but will be before very long,” Mercer said. Hoosiers Coach Lin Loring ranks first all-time in Division I women’s tennis wins, with 782. IU is new to the schedule in a home-and-home, with the Herd visiting Bloomington next season.

No. 26 Purdue, Miami (Ohio), Winthrop, Penn State, UNC Greensboro and Conference USA newcomer Old Dominion finish the home stretch. The eight matches comprises two-third of the Herd’s home schedule for the 2013 spring season.

Purdue is a defending Big Ten champ “with pretty much everybody back,” Mercer said. Miami “is Miami, a rival, we go back-and-forth with them, and they’re the defending (Mid-American Conference) champs. Winthrop is the defending Big South champ.

Penn State is ranked 48th nationally (the Intercollegiate Tennis Association ranks 75 teams). UNC Greensboro won the Southern Conference regular season (and was SC Tournament runner-up) a year ago.

ODU, in C-USA already this season for tennis (a year ahead of other Monarchs’ sports) was a Colonial Athletic Association semifinalist in 2012.

And you thought spelling “Punxsutawney” was hard?

“We’d have an unbelievable RPI,” Mercer said, smiling and referring to the computer-based power index used in many other NCAA sports.

After the Herd goes to Virginia Tech on March 9, Marshall ventures outdoors to the prestigious Blue-Gray National Tennis Classic in Montgomery, Ala., for the first time in Mercer’s years here.

The March 15-17 event has five currently ranked clubs (Virginia, Yale, Pepperdine, Ohio State, Tulane) in the eight-team women’s field, led by No. 12 UVa.

“The Blue-Gray has been around forever (1949),” Mercer said. “It has a ton of tradition. I’d say next to the NCAA team championships, it might be the best play, the best event there is in the spring.”

Marshall also faces two other currently ranked clubs in UNLV (57) in Vegas and VCU (47) in Huntington to end March.

The 13-team C-USA Tournament is scheduled April 18-21 in Houston. The league currently has four ITA-ranked squads in Tulsa (23), Rice (32), Memphis (50) and Tulane (59).

Mercer said there have been seasons in which the Herd has played “some teams with a higher national ranking,” but across the board, he feels like this is Marshall’s toughest schedule in his time in charge.

The veteran Marshall coach said he figures the Herd could eventually be ranked, but “it’s only going to happen if we get healthy. We’ve had injuries and illness … We’ve been struggling here early. In the fall it took us about a month to get going, and when the (season) ended we were playing really well.

“I was hoping that wasn’t going to happen again. With what we have coming up, we’ve got to play better.”

Mercer said he’s going to move freshman Dana Oppinger higher in the rotation because of the impressive play this spring by the former German junior national team player. The coach said senior Dominika Zaprazna has played well at No. 1 singles, but hasn’t found the same success in doubles.

Her No. 1 doubles partner, fellow Slovak and junior Maria Voscekova (No. 2 singles) has been slowed by a flu-like illness. The duo is 0-3 in doubles to date.

For the first time in about a decade, Marshall entered a spring season unranked by the ITA, but Mercer figured the Herd wouldn’t be in the rankings because they didn’t finish last season in the top 75. MU was ranked fourth in the last 2012 Atlantic Region rankings (last June), behind Virginia, Penn State and VCU.

A year ago at this time, the Herd was No. 61 nationally.

“I’m a bit disappointed we’re not in there (top 75),” he said. “I honestly think we could be like a (No.) 55 to 75, 80 team, if we’re healthy … We’ll get there.”

Mercer is hoping the February friendly confines help his Herd. The balls may be fuzzy. The challenge surely isn’t.