• June 24, 2024

Spring Season in Review: Men’s Tennis

Spring Season in Review: Men’s Tennis

RIO GRANDE VALLEY – Overcoming obstacles, growing as individuals and as a unit, and setting new standards were the key takeaways from The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) men’s tennis team’s 2024 spring season.

The roster on the first day of practice featured one senior, one junior, one sophomore and four freshmen, including three who joined the team just over one week before the season opener. When the Vaqueros took the courts for their first match on January 13, three freshmen made their dual-match debuts.

Head coach Nathan Robinson knew there would be some challenges. But he also saw potential, opportunities and a squad hungry to prove themselves. Before the first match, nearly every spot in the lineup was up for grabs, with only No. 1 singles and No. 1 doubles shored up. Robinson focused on how fun it would be to see who stepped up to claim their spot and how much everyone would grow and compete with so much on the line.

Each Vaquero, old and new, did step up to create a special season in more ways than one. UTRGV finished 9-17, increasing the win tally for the third consecutive spring and capturing the most wins in a season since 2018. Three wins stood out above the rest: the 4-3 defeat of rival Texas A&M-Corpus Christi in the South Texas Showdown, ending a 14-year losing skid; the 4-3 win over Lamar; the resounding 4-0 sweep of Seattle U in the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) Tournament quarterfinals.

All of the moments, big and small, made it a rewarding season that has UTRGV excited for the future.

“We achieved goals that had not been done in a long time and were able to see our process continue to show that we are headed in the right direction,” Robinson said. “The WAC Tournament was a highlight moment for a few reasons. First, it’s always so great to get to promote the Valley and show what amazing facilities, staff, support and capabilities we have. It was just a very well ran tournament and an honor to host at the HEB Tennis Center at Pendleton Park in Harlingen. Second was us avenging our regular season loss to Seattle U and doing so dominantly.

“Third, while we lost in the semifinals to the eventual conference champions, the response from the guys – the disappointment, the emotion, the instant focus on next year – was such a great thing to see,” Robinson continued. “We’ve talked about process and belief in ourselves and what this program can be. Not too long ago, pushing a conference champion like we did was something to be celebrated. Now it’s viewed differently by our players. What they expect of themselves and the program is why I’m very excited about what is to come.”

Helping Robinson guide the young group to special moments were senior captain Emilien Burnel and junior Sam Whitehead. Burnel led the way with his play, going 14-10 at No. 1 singles and 12-11 at No. 1 doubles and earning Singles All-WAC First Team honors for the second straight season. He also set the standard with his work ethic, responsibility, maturity, love for his sport and, above all else, love for his team. An early season injury held Whitehead to playing only six matches this spring, but he stepped up massively from the sidelines as a coach for his teammates.

With Burnel and Whitehead’s guidance and tough, intentional coaching from Robinson and assistant coach Ekaterina Vorobeva, the progress every Vaquero made was notable.

Freshmen Will Roberts and Santiago Serrano both captured wins over Power Five opponents. Roberts’ first collegiate victory was a 6-2, 5-7, 1-0 (10:5) match against then-#17 Baylor’s Justin Braverman. That battle kicked off a four-match winning streak for Roberts, who won seven of his last 12 singles matches. Serrano notched the team’s second-best record, going 10-13 in singles with an 8-5 mark at No. 4. He defeated then-#12 Texas A&M’s Kenner Taylor in a gritty comeback, 0-6, 7-6 (7:4), 1-0 (10:7). Fellow spring-add and freshman Paolo Bonaguro won three in a row mid-season and closed his rookie year with a dominant 6-1, 6-4 win over UT Arlington’s Pedro Sasso at the WAC Tournament.

Freshman Ivo Isqueiro made the Singles All-WAC Second Team after going 9-14 overall and 2-2 in WAC play. After lining up at spots 2-6, he settled into the No. 2 singles flight and showed great determination. Isqueiro also lined up at No. 1 doubles with Burnel and the duo went 10-5 overall and 3-1 in conference. Sophomore McAllen Memorial alum Agustin Salazar went 9-15 in singles, ending his season with three consecutive wins at No. 4, including a pair of one-sided wins at the WAC Tournament.

“The team we had in January would lose 0-7 to the team we had in April,” Robinson said. “Young teams can be a handful to coach, but this group was the opposite. They were hardworking, focused, and wanted to compete every day. It made for such a great environment to excel. We have a young core and it bodes well for the future of this program and what new goals can be achieved.”

UTRGV returns everyone but Burnel next season. Though Burnel is irreplaceable, the legacy of competitiveness and genuine care he leaves behind will benefit the men’s tennis program for years to come. This season, full of learning and growing, showed how much potential the Vaqueros have, and they’re eager to continue building.

“The biggest thing I learned about this group is just how much they believe in what we do. They embrace challenges, love being uncomfortable and thrive when given the opportunity,” Robinson praised. “They are a tight-knit group that holds each other accountable and enjoy being teammates. The conversation with the guys now is to be the group that wins a conference championship. You can feel it isn’t just something they are hoping for. They are fully committed and 100% believe it will happen.”

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