By Matt Bradshaw —
Entering his 29th season as head coach, Rex Ecarma has men’s tennis primed and ready to go for collegiate play. The Cardinals won at the University of Hawaii before returning home for victories over Butler and Lipscomb.
The journey to Honolulu proved crucial in preparing Louisville for its home-opening matches.
“I wanted to bring the team together. That was out first trip. When you bring someone far away from home…the team is just so close right now,” Ecarma said. “Technically it was a home opener, but really we were ready. We didn’t have any pre-match jitters.”
Ecarma’s team is an interesting mix of veterans and newcomers. Without sophomores on the roster, student athletes fall at opposite ends of the maturity spectrum.
“I’ve got the bookends,” Ecarma said. “I’ve got five seniors, six freshman and one junior. I use the seniors’ experience and the enthusiasm of the freshmen and I mix them together.”
It’s not often one finds such a unique blend on collegiate squads, even for Ecarma. The long-time leader has coached across five conferences with a variety of talented teams.
When Ecarma last had a “bookends” brew, he finished the season with enormous success.
“In 2012, our last year in the Big East, I had six freshmen and four seniors. We won a conference championship that year and made it to the NCAA tournament,” Ecarma said. “I blended that team together and that team did a great job. Hopefully I can do a good job with this team.”
Success is hard to find in the ACC, the toughest tennis conference in the country. U of L lost six of its last seven conference matches to finish the 2018 regular season. Ecarma described the ACC slate with a not-so-pleasant metaphor.
“If you have fun walking into a room with guillotines in it, join the ACC,” Ecarma said. “If you’re not on the top of your game, you can get demolished. It’s exciting because every win is a big win with NCAA tournament repercussions. But again, if you don’t bring your A-game, you just have no chance.”
The six Cardinal freshmen form an extremely skilled, remarkably diverse group. Sergio Hernandez Ramirez and Juan Paredes hail from Colombia, Marcus Sulen from Norway and Fabien Salle from Switzerland. David Mizrahi is a New Yorker and Alex Wesbrooks, named Kentucky Mr. Tennis in 2018, is a Louisville native.
“I’m going to need them to grow up really quickly,” Ecarma said. “They’re already tired from this semester and this first couple of weeks. That’s probably more tennis than they’ve played a whole year in the high school system. But their enthusiasm…They want to play every day. It’s great to have that.”
On the veteran side, senior Brandon Lancaster leads singles play ranked No. 104 in the nation. He pairs with fellow senior George Hedley in doubles and the two began 2019 ranked No. 34.
Seniors Federico Gomez and Christopher Morin-Kougoucheff both battled injuries in the fall but return healthy for spring play. Junior Fredrik Moe rounds out the roster that coach Ecarma dubs the “Fight Squad”, comparable to a group of “interesting superheroes all in one squad with different powers, different personalities.”
“My team is a fighting team. They really fight hard,” Ecarma said. “I put them all together to come up with ‘Fight Squad’.”
The Cards notched a tough loss at No. 17 Virginia before traveling to Florida for the National Kick-Off Tournament. Ecarma said the event is comparable to the NCAA tournament on steroids.
“The top-60 teams in America. It’s like the NCAA tournament but better,” Ecarma says. “If you take the at-large bids out of the NCAA tournament, like schools from small conferences that historically lose in the first round, even the first round are blockbuster matches.”
Louisville lost 4-0 to Florida Atlantic in the first round of the tournament, then defeated William & Mary 4-1 in a consolation match. Next up, the “Fight Squad” hosts Georgia State on Friday, Feb. 1 at 3 p.m.
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Photos by Matt Bradshaw / The Louisville Cardinal