Throughout Dennis Emery's illustrious career as the head coach of the Kentucky men's tennis team, he has had his fair share of dominant collegiate tennis players. Stars like Cedric Kauffmann, Jessie Witten and Eric Quigley were no strangers to NCAA Championship success. These players helped lead the Wildcats with their individual success deep into the NCAA tournament over the course of their career.
This year's Cats are poised for another deep run and now more than ever they eye the championship as a group. The 2012 Wildcats are off to their best start in the modern era of UK men's tennis and have climbed up to a No. 6 national ranking thanks in large part to an impactful sophomore class that has developed faster than what Emery expected.
Coming off of a hard-fought 4-3 victory against No. 30 Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., the Wildcats have continued to push off from the greatest start in Emery's 30-year tenure with a record of 9-0. For the fourth consecutive match, the clinching point came from sophomore Alejandro Gomez, one of two sophomores to earn singles points for the Cats.
Gomez, along with the rest of his sophomore class, has continued to develop and consistently win matches at the bottom of the lineup.
"What they (sophomores) have done this year is step in and become the core of the team," Emery said. "I truly believe that their development right now is why we are a top-10 team and then, depending on how much more they progress, will decide how special this season is going to be for us."
The sophomores' progress on the court was not the only development seen this year; their bond off the court has strengthened them as the core of the team, despite having different backgrounds.
Gomez hails from Cali, Colombia, joining Panav Jha (Montreal, Canada), Tom Jomby (Nantes, France), Ryuji Hirooka (Tokyo, Japan), Maks Gold (Louisville, Ky.) and Grant Roberts (Lexington, Ky.) in a geographically and culturally diverse group.
"They are a very close group and I know that every coach says that, but this group really is close on and off the court," Emery said. "The closeness of the second-year performers has made a huge difference."
A commonality between these talented players that continues to hold this great bond is their thirst for success. Last year, the Wildcats were able to take a sip of sweet victory before falling in the Elite Eight.
"When you make a run to the Elite Eight like we did last year, then it helps your program in every aspect," Emery said. "Those guys were able to see what it took on and off the court to make something special like that happen. They knew that we had two seniors last year and that someone was going to have to step up and fill those roles this season."
So far, the sensational sophomore class has undertaken a crucial role in developing the team as a whole. But, the sophomores are not the only ones who have served a vital position within UK men's tennis.
Seniors Eric Quigley and Alex Musialek and junior Anthony Rossi have been the very backbone of the sophomores' development this season. With Rossi's 2011 record of 20-6, Musialek's spring 2011 ranking, which peaked at No. 32 last year, and Quigley's honor of singles All-America in 2011, these leaders have laid the foundation for the sophomores' growth. With standards set high, the sophomores have much to gain and look forward to for the rest of their season.
"Eric Quigley and Anthony Rossi are very quiet leaders, while Alex Musialek is a lot more vocal on the court, but possess the same type of leadership qualities just in a different way." Emery said. "All three have been really big to the development of our sophomore class in showing them what it takes to be a top-eight team in the nation and what you have to do to be successful in these national events."
With great leaderships and a crucial development of the sophomore class, UK looks to build on their 2011 success. Each step of the way will bring them closer towards their goals.
Video interview with Alejandro Gomez before UK's win over Notre Dame