Ben Wagland had some adjustments to make.
KU Singh, a senior on the Georgia men's tennis team, sits in the No. 8 singles spot of the season's first ITA rankings. The Bulldogs begin the duals season Jan. 25 against Vanderbilt.
The freshman was playing tennis on the collegiate level — on the opposite side of the world from his hometown.
“When I first got here, I wasn’t too sure what to expect because I hadn’t been in a team sport,” said Wagland, a native of New South Wales, Australia. “Tennis is individual but coming here, you’re playing as a team, so the (upperclassmen) have been really helpful in practice and just getting around and getting used to match settings here.”
Wagland, one of five freshman on the Georgia’s 11-man squad, said he had to transition to focusing on the well-being of the team rather than worrying about only himself.
“Over time, that’s changed,” said Wagland, who posted a 6-3 singles record and an 11-2 doubles record — with junior Hernus Pieters — during the team’s falls schedule. “Coming into (duals) season, I think everyone is on the same page — performing for the team.”
The Bulldogs, who grabbed the No. 6 spot in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association’s first rankings of the year, have just two seniors on the team this year. After finishing the 2012 duals season 26-3 — and 10-1 in Southeastern Conference play — and reaching the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament, Georgia had a batch of fresh faces join the program in the fall. And they had to get into the swing of things.
“The freshmen, obviously, always wanna do good,” sophomore Nathan Pasha said. “But I think the goal for them from their fall is more for them to get their feet wet and kinda understand what college tennis is about and kind of get the vibe and adjust to the whole college thing, because I know that’s what had to happen for me to be successful in the spring.”
Georgia head coach Manuel Diaz said Pasha has been a big influence on the freshmen as they learn the team’s schedule, process and regimens.
That freshman class — Wagland, Austin Smith, Marco Nunez, Casey Kay and Nick Wood (who enrolled in January) — went a combined 27-20 in singles matches during fall play.
“Just like all teams, we’re gonna have to prove to ourselves that we’re tough enough,” Diaz said. “We’re gonna have to overcome some adversity. Things are not always gonna go our way. We’ve got a relatively young team. We’ve got a lot of newcomers. We’ve got a lot of young guys that are gonna have to be mature enough to withstand competition with the kind of schedule we have, which is very, very challenging.”
Mixed in with that youth is a wealth of experience for the Bulldogs, who begin the 2013 portion of the schedule in Palm Springs, Calif., competing in the National Collegiate Tennis Classic.
Three are ranked in the ITA’s top 20 in singles play: senior KU Singh at No. 8, Pieters at No. 16 and Pasha at No. 19. The freshman Wagland is ranked in two different doubles pairs — No. 5 with Pieters and No. 26 with Pasha.
“Now is the most important time in the season,” Pieters said. “So it’s a bit more intense because we start to practice a bit more and start to work more towards a goal and the goal is closer. It obviously motivates us a bit more than maybe in the fall because it’s so far away. You just get more motivated.”
Wagland said as nice as it is to be ranked nationally, the rankings don’t matter at this point.
“Everyone is really good playing high up in the lineup in doubles,” he said. It just means we have confidence playing against everyone and that we can beat anyone in the doubles. We have a good shot against everyone, which is good to know before we play.”
Diaz said the Bulldogs’ schedule — they open the duals season on Jan. 25 against Vanderbilt — will prove how tough the squad is.
“I think we’re gonna have to be quick learners as a team. We’re gonna have to have good leadership because we have a lot of youth,” Diaz said. “We’re gonna have some tests early on.”
The perception of a youthful team can create naysayers, Singh said
“I think people underestimate this team, so I hope we can prove a lot of people wrong this year,” he said.
A senior voice setting the tone for a young team — that mentality helped lead to nearly the entire squad returning from the holiday break a week early to get in extra training, one step in achieving the Bulldogs’ ultimate goal.
“We feel like we are one of the best teams in the country,” Pasha said. “Even what Coach Diaz preaches is about believing in ourselves. We know that’s where it starts and we know our goal is to win the national championship. For that to happen, the first step is to believe and we truly do believe. We’re young, but we believe we’re one of the best in the country and we can compete for a national championship.”