The Cal Poly men's tennis team prepares for a match at the University of Washington's Nordstrom Tennis Center last weekend. | Courtesy photo/Julia Pang

In the middle of winter, the Cal Poly men’s tennis team reports for on-court sprints and conditioning at 6 a.m. They are pushed physically to the point of feeling like throwing up. Their coach sends them to grab a quick breakfast and refuel before practice resumes.

Practice lasts for at least three more hours — drills, point-play and matches. But for the team of 11, there is more at stake thanmaking it through to the end.

Under the guidance of their coaches, the Mustangs have cultivated a unique team culture, one dependent on every single member of the program. They are held to a standard not only by their coach, but by one another, to remain concentrated, energized and productive down to the very last minute of every practice.

“If all 11 guys on the team are all thinking about getting their teammates better, you have 10 guys trying to get you better,” junior Ben Donovan said. “All it takes is one guy for that system to fall apart.”

Donovan said that in his three years at Cal Poly, the beginning of this season marks a starting point for the team unlike any he has ever seen. And it shows. The mentality that head coach Nick Carless facilitates among his players is breeding results.

Two weeks ago, No. 57 Cal Poly was one out of the top 60 teams in the nation invited to compete in the 2016 ITA Division I Men’s Kick-Off Weekend.

The Mustangs traveled to North Carolina to open their spring season at No. 11 Wake Forest University, one out of 15 ITA regional sites. Cal Poly, the third seed out of a four-team bracket, lost a hard-fought battle in their first match against No. 44 Tennessee.

In their second round, the Mustangs lost by only one match to No. 59 Auburn. Carless said the team played extremely well and that these tough matches are something to build upon.

“After the matches  we went back to the hotel room and picked five things we could have done better,” Carless said. “The goal is to actually do those five things next time and not just talk about them.”

Last weekend, Cal Poly traveled to Seattle to face two additional opponents: a total of four matches over the span of seven days.

On Friday, the Mustangs lost their first match in Seattle against No. 43 Washington, 6-1. The Huskies seized the doubles point, and clinched three singles matches in a row. Freshman Aiku Shintani earned the lone victory after the match was already decided. 

On Saturday morning, Cal Poly beat Portland 4-3. The victory against the Pilots marked the Mustangs’ first win of the season, following three tough losses in a row against top-ranked competition. Despite four out of six players losing the first set in singles, the Mustangs fought back to tie up the score 3-3 and under immense pressure, Donovan clinched his third set to secure the win.

“We had a tough start against Portland, but not because of our energy,” junior Corey Pang said. “The team showed a lot of heart. It was a relief because we have all been working so hard and didn’t see the results we wanted in our first three matches.”

Last year, there were high hopes for Cal Poly to capture its third Big West Tournament title and automatic NCAA Tournament berth in four years. With a mid-season ranking of No. 49, Cal Poly was on the cusp of qualifying for the NCAA Tournament without even having to win the conference tournament.

However, for the first time in three years Cal Poly did not enter the Big West Tournament as a top seed. UC Irvine defeated the Mustangs in the second round and their success was cut short. The outcome was the difference between losing just a handful of matches, or even points, throughout the entire season.

This year, the returning players are utilizing the sting of last year’s results as fuel. They are reminded that nothing will be handed to them without showing up every day and putting forth the necessary work. The team is young. There are no seniors on Cal Poly’s roster and the three junior captains — Donovan, Pang and Garrett Auproux — are leading the charge. But they are not operating alone.

Cal Poly’s four true freshmen were designated as the No. 23 recruiting class in the nation. Though still in the early stages of their college careers, they are quickly learning the demanding, yet rewarding aspects of college tennis.

Freshman Rafael Lenhard saw the enormous potential in Cal Poly’s program, he said. The choice to play for Cal Poly was obvious when he realized how effective a talented squad can be when each player commits to be loyal to one another.

“It’s a whole different dimension where you are playing for yourself, but you are playing just as much for your teammates, so you can’t let the negatives get to you,” Lenhard said. “Let’s say you’re having a bad day. You’re going to use your teammates to not only help build them up, but to build yourself back up and have a better practice.”

So what makes up the framework of a team culture that claims to hold so much potential?

Carless shares with the Mustangs a metaphor of a pyramid. Each level is a stepping stone. Level one spells out the basics: be punctual, have all of your equipment. Level two requires a work mentality: try to have a perfect practice every time. Next: be able, at any point throughout the season, to exert unconditional intensity and focus. With each increasing level comes a higher expectation of ownership, of responsibility for working together as a team. The top of the pyramid represents unbreakable confidence.

“He calls it being a dog or being an animal,” Lenhard said. “It’s about the other teams feeling our energy. It’s about us knowing our game well enough to impose it on the other team.”

The standard is set high. Not one player out of the 11 hesitates when you ask what his team goal is for this year. As a unit, they strive to compete at the NCAA level and to consistently be recognized as one of the best programs in the nation among the top 25 teams.

“We belong here now,” Donovan said. “It’s not about us going to play Wake Forest, Tennessee or Washington. We are good enough that if we do what we do right, we can beat almost anyone.”

Carless believes that by taking one match at a time, the Mustangs will continue to learn and progress. He said that the team’s energy in its first four matches is evident. Other coaches even commented on how much the Mustangs are constantly competing and playing for each other, despite losing a few tough matches.

“I’ve never seen a team that likes each other as much as this group,” Carless said.

Cal Poly’s first home match of the season is on Feb. 5 against Saint Mary’s and the homestand continues against No. 39 San Diego State on Feb. 6.

Bordering Mott Athletics Center, Cal Poly’s tennis facility sets the stage for the Mustangs to break through any preconceptions of an uptight country club atmosphere. According to Donovan, college tennis is one of the most entertaining types of tennis to watch. The Mustangs are eager to capitalize on their home court advantage by getting the crowd involved as much as they possibly can.

“It’s eye-opening. People are surprised when they watch us because it is more exciting than they think,” Donovan said. “Especially with a team like us who is super vocal and energetic.”

Four out of six Big West teams, including Cal Poly, opened their season with ITA national rankings. This list includes No. 48 UC Santa Barbara, No. 57 UC Davis and No. 70 UC Irvine. The Mustangs will also play ranked nonconference teams such as No. 52 Denver and No. 59 Boise State in the early stages of their season.

It’s the middle of winter. After 6 a.m. conditioning and well into a three hour practice, the Cal Poly men’s tennis team is fatigued, tired and losing focus. But there is more at stake than just making it to the end. One player’s lack of effort and performance will make or break that of his 10 teammates’. This is where it counts most. This could make the difference.

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