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For the Cal Poly men’s tennis team, it was a sign of things to come.
The 2014 NCAA Tournament was a source of experience and confidence for a pair of young Cal Poly hopefuls.
Then freshman Ben Donovan led his match against the nation’s top-ranked collegiate tennis player before UCLA clinched the overall team victory. Fellow freshman Corey Pang also held his own as the Mustangs’ No. 4 seed. The squad failed to advance, but the stage was set for 2015.
The absence of graduating seniors Marco Comuzzo and Matt Thomson leaves a rather large void in the team’s doubles lineup. If the Mustangs hope to repeat and surpass the results of the 2014 squad, players needed to step up.
Enter Pang and Donovan.
So far this year, the sophomores have amassed a 16-2 record playing together with an unblemished 5-0 record in conference play.
In addition to collecting crucial doubles victories, Donovan has a record of 19-12 on the year, usually at the No. 1 slot, while Pang is not far behind him at 15-12. The duo’s doubles play has been the anchor for a No. 54 team in the nation.
Looking at Donovan and Pang, they aren’t exactly two of a kind, let alone potentially the most successful doubles team in the school’s history. Pang is conservatively listed at 6-foot-5 on the team’s roster, while Donovan is listed at 5-foot-10. They may not be clones of each other, like famed American doubles partners (and identical twins) Bob and Mike Bryan, but their games complement each other in a way that is conducive to producing results on the court.
“It’s not something you can make,” Pang said. “You either have it or you don’t and I think me and Ben have that.”
Donovan grew up in several states, following wherever tennis took him, spending time in New York, Tennessee and tennis academies in Texas and Orange County before he took his talents to San Luis Obispo. The gritty player is known for his relentless returns.
Pang, on the other hand, dominated the public school circuit in the Bay Area, making his name for himself as a top-ranked recruit with a cool demeanor and a nasty serve. The level-headed Carlmont High School product helps keep an often fiery Donovan level-headed in the game’s most tense situations.
“I definitely lose my mind out there on the court and when we are playing doubles,” Donovan said. “He is the one who calms me down.”
Though wildly different, their unlikely chemistry doesn’t seem to stick out among an uncommonly tight team.
Pang’s strong serve and Donovan’s fine return tactics have morphed together to create an immovable obstacle for Cal Poly’s opponents. While the height difference doesn’t seem out of the ordinary for them, it does present a challenge for unfamiliar opponents.
“I think its a mental thing,” Donovan said. “They see Corey go out there and pump four quick serves, and when we are returning they see me cracking returns right back at them.”
The height difference has an effect that mirrors the personality difference.
“They balance each other really well out there on the court,” Cal Poly head tennis coach Nick Carless said. “Corey’s kind of a laid back guy, but if you see him on the court he has some fire to him as well. I think they have a lot of confidence, so that allows them to play really loose and aggressive doubles.”
They make up the nucleus of a team that also boasts sophomore Garrett Auproux (19-11) and steady senior Naveen Beasley (15-15) as other key contributors. The pair has arguably established their place at the top of the Big West, despite going just 3-2 in conference play this year.
A good crop of young talent led by Carless, the reigning Big West Coach of the Year, points to future success for the Mustangs’ tennis program. Currently one of the school’s best athletic programs, the Cal Poly tennis team will start to demand more and more attention as they creep further and further in the postseason. As this year’s team hopes to make a run in the NCAA Tournament, look for Donovan and Pang to provide critical victories as well as the kind of emotional momentum that is needed in the pressure-packed sport of NCAA tennis.
The Big West Tournament at Indian Wells Tennis Garden is the final stepping stone to a repeat appearance in the NCAA Tournament. Pang and Donovan will likely be the catalysts for the Cal Poly squad in its first matchup against UC Riverside, set to begin at 9 a.m. on Thursday.
“We are focused on keeping our energy up so courts 2 and 3 can feed off of it,” Donovan said. “That’s the mentality we want to have for the culture of this team.”