Former Kentucky men's tennis head coach Dennis Emery stepped down from the position earlier this year to take on the role of assistant to the athletic director. After serving 30 seasons as the head coach at Kentucky, after building the entire men's program from the ground up to Southeastern Conference champions in his final season, and everything else in between, it was time for Emery to move on.
Emery wasn't the only piece of the 2012 team to depart. After numerous contributions to the program throughout their careers, SEC Player of the Year Eric Quigley and Alex Musialek graduated in May. Those men represented the top two spots in UK's rotation last season. They were also key parts of the top two doubles teams that Kentucky had to offer.
Kentucky has giant-like shoes to fill for the 2012-13 season.
Though the true NCAA competition doesn't start until next spring, the tennis team will be competing in two invitational tournaments over the upcoming weekend in efforts to begin life without Emery, Quigley and Musialek. Kauffmann will send a group of four players including Jomby to the Illinois Invitational Tournament, while Rossi and the rest of the team will travel east to Durham, N.C. to participate in the Duke Invitational.
For any team in any sport the adjustments in store for the UK tennis team would be tough to immediately overcome. But they do have a slight advantage.
Emery's right-hand man since 2005 and former Kentucky tennis player Cedric Kauffmann seemed to be a logical fit as Emery's successor. He had pre-existing relationships with the players on the roster and had been instrumental in reshaping the mentality and attitude of the UK tennis program. While Kauffmann made all the sense in the world on paper, he knew the decision was ultimately not his to make.
"When Coach (Emery) got that job, it was within a week; (the players) were like, 'Oh, are you going to be the new coach?'" said Kauffmann. "And I told them that it was not my decision. But I think they were very excited that it was me."
Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart made the decision with Emery's input to hire Emery's longtime assistant. With the hire, Kauffmann became the 12th men's tennis head coach in University of Kentucky history, but the first new hire in over 30 years. The hire, however, was not to find the next Dennis Emery, but rather to find the first Cedric Kauffmann.
Kauffmann understands the legacy that Emery has left behind. After all, he had been a part of it not only as a coach, but also as a player under Emery for four seasons in the last 1990s, earning multiple All-America and All-SEC honors. He understands the history and the tradition that have been built and that replacing an icon is not something that happens overnight. Instead, Kauffmann is concerned about just what he has been hired to do: focus on the task at hand and carry on the tradition.
"I don't look at Coach (Emery)'s 30 years and say what am I going to do against that?" said Kauffmann. "I don't even know if I'm going to coach 30 years. My job is to take care of this year. And when I'm done with this year, I'm going to take care of next year. I don't look too far ahead. I'm just going to get better today, get better tomorrow, and if I do a good job then my record will be pretty good."
The hire has gone over very well with the returning athletes. UK did all it could to make sure to maintain a stable environment for the UK men's tennis team. In fact, other than the loss of Emery from the staff, the change is barely noticeable.
"It looks like nothing has changed," said senior captain Anthony Rossi. "We're just missing Coach Emery, but it doesn't really look like much has changed. It's pretty much the same."
Rossi, who has soared to No. 12 in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association preseason singles rankings, has been saddled with the unenviable role of trying to fill the void left by Quigley and Musialek. The lone senior on this season's roster will be responsible for much more than either of those two had to shoulder. But that's why he was chosen. That's exactly why Kauffmann named Rossi his team captain for the upcoming season.
"I love my captain," said Kauffmann. "Anthony Rossi has sacrificed a lot. What I mean by this is that he was always a good player, and he's gotten better every year. He's been a very good listener since he came in and just waited for his time."
Rossi's time has come, and his role will be as crucial as any captain in recent UK history. Luckily, he won't have to do it all on his own.
"We have a big junior class that I expect to push a little bit to get the freshmen coming along because Anthony, the lone senior, can't do it alone," said Kauffmann.
That junior class is highlighted by Tom Jomby (No. 45) and Panav Jha (No. 64), who played major roles in the 2012 SEC Championship campaign. But they, along with the four other juniors, will have to take the next leap as upperclassmen in their play and as leaders to assist Rossi with those duties.
The goal for Kentucky is to build on last season's success, even with the exodus of their top two players. Last season, despite the SEC regular season championship, UK fell in the SEC Tournament and experienced an early exit in the NCAA Tournament in the Sweet 16.
But how do they replace those kinds of talents? How do they take the next step with that many holes?
"I don't think I can replace Eric," said Kauffmann. "Nobody will replace Eric. But I think they need to come into their own a little bit. Rossi needs to become Anthony Rossi. Jomby can become Tom Jomby."
No one individual is expected to singlehandedly fill those voids. For the Wildcats to replace the missing pieces, each returner is just going to have to improve. If that happens, Kentucky could collectively be in a position to repeat as SEC Champions and perhaps beyond, even if no one outside the UK tennis offices believes that to be a possibility.
"I'm pretty sure no one believes we can do it, but I'm pretty sure we can," said Rossi. "We've had some talks with the team and how we can do it. It's going to be tough, it's not going to be easy, but I'm really sure we can do."
That's the exact type of mentality you want your brand new team captain to have. While Rossi isn't trying to be the next Quigley or Musialek, those guys certainly made their impact. That's what makes Rossi the prototypical leader.
Kauffmann says one of Rossi's strengths has been observation since he came to UK. He's learned from former captain Brad Cox for two seasons, and he's watched how last year's seniors handled themselves as players and leaders. After spending a great deal of time with Quigley and Musialek over the years, Rossi has become himself by adopting bits and pieces from each of them.
"He's a little bit in between both," said Kauffmann. "Eric was very consistent with his emotions. I think he became more outspoken a little bit towards the end of his career. (Musialek) was more of the voice in the locker room. He had some higher highs and maybe some smaller lows compared to Eric, but he was the voice. Rossi is a little bit of both. He's got the 'joie de vivre' from France, but he's got some toughness in him and attitude in matches."
That "joie de vivre" is a French term meaning "a cheerful enjoyment of life." But Rossi would enjoy nothing more than atoning for last season's anti-climactic finish in his last go-around as Wildcat. As the undoubted leader of this team, whether or not that happens is largely up to him to rally the troops and take one last shot at greatness.
"I think we had a good season last year, but ended pretty bad, we think," said Rossi. "We knew we could lose, but not that way. As a senior, especially, it's my last year and I'm just ready for everything. I hope we win the the SEC again, the tournament, and I really think we can do something in the NCAA Tournament."