June 5, 2014
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – Marshall tennis Coach John Mercer isn’t one to back away from a challenge.
So, when presented the opportunity to play in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association Kickoff Weekend in late January, the veteran Thundering Herd coach didn’t flinch.
In the 64-team field, Marshall will play at UCLA, the defending NCAA women’s Division I champion, on Jan. 24-25.
“It’s great,” Mercer said Thursday. “What’s not to like about it? You have a chance to play the defending national champion, and it’s on the courts where the 1980 Los Angeles Olympics were played. It’s just a great opportunity.”
The Herd finished the 2013-14 season in the Conference USA Tournament semifinals and went 14-8 against a spring schedule that included 10 nationally ranked teams. For next spring (2015), Mercer has nine teams scheduled that closed 2014 in the ITA top 75.
Marshall barely missed that ranking, but was fourth among five alternates for the ITA Kickoff Weekend. The top 16 schools play host to regionals, with the 16 winners advancing to host Virginia for the championships.
As the fourth among five alternates, the Herd got the second-last pick in the ITA “draft.” UCLA and Cal were left, so Mercer took the NCAA title team. Michigan State was left with Cal.
There is a method to Mercer’s decision. MU hopes to have entries in the All-American Championships in Pacific Palisades, Calif., this fall, and that event has a pre-qualifier at UCLA. So, the exposure of Herd players there can’t hurt.
Also, Mercer said there is a core of so-called mid-major schools that want to remain as challengers to the top conferences. Mercer said he wants the Herd to remain among that “handful,” because that enhances recruiting. That’s another reason he annually lines up a schedule to test his team.
“If you fall out of that handful of schools, it’s really hard to get back in,” Mercer said. “If you’re not in one of the top five major conferences, you have to challenge yourself and play a top-flight schedule to remain competitive.”
Next spring, the teams from the final 2014 ITA top 75 on the Herd schedule are Rice, Kentucky, Houston, Utah, DePaul, Virginia Tech, Winthrop, Louisville and Minnesota. Marshall also plays Penn State, Liberty, VCU and Old Dominion, all of which have been ranked on an on-and-off basis in the last two years.
At UCLA in the Kickoff Weekend, Marshall is guaranteed two matches.
After the meeting with the champion Bruins, the Herd will play No. 2 region seed Kansas State or No. 3 Cal-Irvine. Those teams were ranked Nos. 68 and 70, respectively, in the final ITA spring national rankings – or in the Herd’s “neighborhood.”
Marshall loses two players from its 2013-14 squad. Senior Karli Timko graduated, and Mercer said sophomore Dana Oppinger, who played No. 1 for the Herd, is transferring to the University of San Diego.
Marshall finished No. 4 in the ITA Atlantic Region rankings, behind Virginia, Virginia Tech and Maryland. Oppinger and MU freshman Derya Turhan were ranked Nos. 19 and 20, respectively, in singles in the region.
The Herd has played in the ITA winter Kickoff on several occasions. Mercer is thrilled to go again.
“It’s exciting to go play at UCLA,” he said. “Last year we decided to pass on (the Kickoff Weekend) and I didn’t want to start the season out that way with a young team.
“Then, we started out and played pretty well, and I second-guessed myself about not going. This year, I said if we had the chance to get in, we were going for it. So, we’re going to No. 1 UCLA.”