Sept. 17, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – Marshall tennis coach John Mercer and his assistant, Kellie Schmitt, feel a lot like Dan Bylsma when Sidney Crosby is in the penalty box.
If that doesn’t translate for you, well, Mercer and Schmitt are a big Pittsburgh pro sports fans, and Bylsma and Crosby are the Penguins’ coach and star player, respectively..
In other words, the Herd coaches are playing seriously shorthanded right now.
As the Thundering Herd opens the 2013-14 season -- his 12th leading the program – this coming weekend at the Tribe Invitational in Williamsburg, Va., Mercer has only five players.
For this tournament-laden portion of the schedule, Marshall will play without a sixth singles and third doubles entry in all events. He also has a young team, with only one senior -- Karlyn Timko.
It wasn’t expected to be that way. Mercer signed four recruits, but only two of them have joined the program. He expects two formidable foreign players to enroll in January, changing the face of the program before a testy spring schedule.
“This year’s a little different for us,” Mercer said Tuesday. “Every year’s a little different, but this year … We probably haven’t been in this position since 2001.
“In previous years, we always had ranked players and ranked teams, players ranked in in singles and doubles, so the fall has been very much a time to build upon those rankings, to hopefully end up qualifying for the NCAA or one of two other major national championships.
“This year, the majority of our team will be new players. By January, I expect we’ll have four new players (freshmen), so, this fall is going to be more of just getting a feel for our new players, trying to find some combinations in doubles that work.
“We’ll be fine by January, but this gives the new players -- and especially those returning -- the opportunity to play higher than they’ve played before. What I’m saying is there are a lot of openings here.”
When Mercer thinks back to 2001 and the Herd’s youth then, well, it turned out OK. By 2004, that entering class had produced an NCAA nationals doubles runner-up team of Ashley Kroh and Jessica Johnson. That recruiting class produced three Mid-American Conference tournament titles.
At the William & Mary-hosted event this weekend, Mercer said he expects to open with sophomore Dana Oppinger playing No. 1 singles, followed in the lineup by junior Kai Broomfield, Timko and freshmen Annie Gulsrud and Rachael Morales, at Nos. 4 and 5, respectively. Oppinger and Timko return as a doubles team, after going 13-8 at No. 3 doubles last season.
Timko, of Houston, Pa., was 10-4 at No. 6 singles (13-6 overall) last season. Oppinger began her rookie season playing No. 5, but by the finish the native of Weingarten, Germany, was at No. 2.
Broomfield, of Toronto, went 5-7 as the Herd’s top alternate last spring.
Gulsrud, a native of Stavenger, Norway, comes to Marshall from IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. Morales, of Reynoldsburg, Ohio, was the 2012 Ohio Division II state singles champion.
“We’re going to see going into the tournaments each week how it works out,” Mercer said. “Nothing’s written in stone. We’ll have some shuffling. We’re going to see who can lift their games to another level.
“A lot is wide open, but the players coming in have a lot of firepower and I think we’ll get better and better as the year goes along.”
Mercer is 175-84 at Marshall. Last season (spring), his team finished 13-11. But consider that record against the competition. The Herd played 10 teams that appeared in the final ITA rankings (top 75). Marshall was No. 79 in that ranking.
It’s no different for 2013-14. After five fall events, Mercer against has a loaded schedule for dual-match competition starting in late January after an invitational at Virginia.
The schedule includes Virginia Tech, Kentucky, Penn State, Indiana, Minnesota, Utah, BYU, VCU and Louisville, then – to finish – a 16-team Conference USA Tournament hosted by Old Dominion.
“Definitely, it is a two-edged sword,” Mercer said of the schedule. “We like to play a great schedule. It’s one reason why we recruit as well as we do. Kids want to come here and be challenged. We want to be competitive.
“The conference, a 16-team tournament is a lot. We’ll have byes and double byes. We’ve got a really good league. We were No. 79 last season and we were sixth among conference schools. What’s that tell you?”
Mercer is one C-USA coach who wants to play at least a partial C-USA regular-season schedule, but this regular season and in the future, the only league opponent for the Herd is Old Dominion. He also believes the C-USA realignment will aid the Herd’s competitiveness, since programs like SMU and Tulsa are moving out.
“Some of those schools that ended up leaving the conference had more resources than we had,” Mercer said. “I think our administration has worked hard to try to keep our program competitive at that level.
“With the Tulsas and SMUs, those are places with multimillion dollar facilities. Some of the schools coming in aren't as strong as the schools that are leaving, and I think we’ll have a better opportunity to compete for a conference championship again.
“And we’re going to continue to play a strong schedule.”
Mercer will learn a lot about his “Forehand Five” this fall, as he looks to add to the roster next semester.
“The four we recruited I’m really excited about,” Mercer said. “They’re excited about playing college tennis. They’re excited to be at Marshall. It’s like having kids in a candy store, and they’ll be playing at a high level.
“It’s all new to them, and in some ways, to us as coaches. And that’s what makes it fun.”