Photo courtesy of the UMHB Athletics Department
BELTON–As it turned out, the biggest challenge for the UMHB tennis team on its recent road trip to Orlando did not come on the court.
It came in getting back to Belton.
A tornado warning near Austin came first with the Cru about 45 minutes from landing on Friday night. That sent the plane back to Orlando, and upon arrival, the flight was canceled. A night spent sleeping on the floor of Orlando food court provided for a less-than-ideal situation. And even after help from the tournament director on Saturday morning allowed the team to pass the time at an airbnb, it took three separate flights back to Austin, with various connecting flights within those, to get all 18 members of the team back to Belton. The last group arrived on campus at about 3 a.m. Monday morning.
A crazy travel story, yes. But more than that it revealed the character of a young team, who is composed almost entirely of freshmen and sophomores.
“Literally nobody complained, which shocked me,” head coach Daniel White told True To The Cru last week. “It was a testament to them, how they were able to handle that situation. I’m impressed with them.”
That resilience showed up at the Cru’s three-day tournament in Orlando, where a slew of top-notch competitors challenged UMHB match after match. The men faced No. 1-ranked Case Western Reserve, and went 24-0 in Tuesday’s matches against UW-La Crosse and Coe College.
“They really exceeded my expectations,” White said of the Crusader men. “They were able to get a win right out of the dates. The next day, we had a doubleheader, and we knew that was going to be grueling, but they played lights out…the whole day.”
Despite rain canceling the women’s team’s first match of the event on Monday, they came back with three solid performances over the next two days, laying a foundation that White anticipates will carry both the men and the women into the conference portion of the spring schedule.
“The girls handled it well,” White said. “They fought hard and in all three of those matches, we had opportunities to win. We just weren’t able to convert. It was tough, but we were in every match, even if the final result wasn’t in our direction.”
And more than just the matches themselves, the Crusaders took away a unique experience from Orlando. Based on research done via the UMHB archives dating back to the 2004-05 season, this group was the first tennis team to have left the state and played somewhere besides neighboring Arkansas or Louisiana. Facing opponents from the midwest and east coast is also something few teams in past years had the opportunity to do.
“It was a great team bonding experience,” White noted, “just to be able to travel like that as a team.”
The youth on the roster is a notable element in the storyline of both the men’s and women’s teams, who are finding success as ASC play begins. The men’s team, at 9-3, already has two more wins than the entire 2021-22 season. The women, at 4-7, are on pace to surpass their seven-win total from last year as well.
While a roster composed of mostly freshmen and sophomores can be challenging for a head coach to manage, White has enjoyed having the opportunity to work with newcomers.
“There’s certainly pros and cons to having a younger team versus having an older team,” White said. “As I’ve evolved my coaching style these past four years, we’ve gotten a little more focused and intense and more disciplined.I’m running the program differently this year than I did last, and the year before that.
“Having lots of new players, they don’t know any difference. Whereas if we had a lot of seniors, there might be more friction there as I change my methods and hwo we do things. Everybody’s here because they want to play and they want to win. They’re ready to fight for their spots. That competition breeds success.”
Five matches remain on the slate, beginning with a pair in West Texas on Saturday, as the Cru faces both McMurry and Howard Payne. The home duels with Hardin-Simmons on April 7 will be key, considering HSU was picked to win the west division in both the ASC men’s and women’s preseason polls. The regular season finale at Concordia (TX) on April 15 will be a test for both the men and the women as well, and White hopes that the quality of competition in Orlando will pay dividends as UMHB enters the homestretch of the season.
“That was cool [for the men to face the No. 1 team in the nation in Orlando],” White said. “It gave us some things to work on and emulate as we prepare ourselves moving forwards.
“Our guys are in a really good position as we gear up for conference. The big ones are coming up in a few weeks. Hardin-Simmons and Concordia are the teams to beat, especially on the men’s side. I feel pretty good about it. They’re favored to beat us, but we’re certainly in range to take them down.