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Kauffmann taking day-to-day approach to first season as men's tennis head coach

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First-year head coach Cedric Kauffmann is leading the men's tennis team into its first team matches of the season on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) First-year head coach Cedric Kauffmann is leading the men's tennis team into its first team matches of the season on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Cedric Kauffmann has been here before. The Kentucky men's tennis team is mere days away from opening its 2013 season, something Kauffmann has been though many times.

As UK prepares to start its season on Sunday, Kauffmann is in a different position. No longer is he a player getting ready for one singles and one doubles match or an assistant coach working behind the scenes to prepare his team.

This time, it's Kauffmann coming up with practice plans. It's Kauffmann making the final decisions on the lineup. For the first time, it's Kauffmann serving as head coach.

He conceded that it does feel different, but he isn't allowing the scope of his task to get the better of him. Kauffmann knows that the only way to replace a legend like Dennis Emery is by focusing on the present.

"My only concern right now is Northern Kentucky and after the match is over I'll take the next match," Kauffmann said. "I think I would feel a little bit more pressure if I looked at it as the whole season, but I can only take it one day at a time."

UK, ranked No. 9 in the preseason, will welcome Northern Kentucky at 11 a.m. ET on Sunday and Morehead State at 5 p.m. The doubleheader is the start of an indoor season that will call on the Wildcats to play five matches in less than a week, the team's first action in more than two months since the fall season ended. With matches against top-25 opponents looming, Kauffmann will be looking for focus above all else as it begins the season at the Boone Tennis Center.

"I know they always come out for big matches, if we're playing a top-five team, a top-10 team. What we've done well in the past is keep that intensity whether we're playing a top-five, top-10, top-50, top-80 team," Kauffmann said. "What I'm looking for in the guys that play this weekend is their intensity and the level of play they're going to be at no matter what's across the net."

If practice is any indication, that shouldn't be a problem.

"We're working hard. We just had three great days of practice on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday," Kauffmann said. "We did some boring stuff, we call it 'meat and potatoes,' and they just responded really well and they're helping each other go through the tough practices."

Even so, it's impossible to guarantee anything having lost Eric Quigley and Alex Musialek off last year's Southeastern Conference championship team. The two departed players are among the most decorated in school history and served as the emotional center of the team.

Now, the only senior on the roster is Anthony Rossi, ranked 94th nationally in singles. Like his coach, he is stepping into a new role. He'll be called on to lead more than in the past, something that shouldn't be too much to ask considering his relationship with the coach who recruited him and with whom he shares a French background.

"We talk a lot and we get along pretty well," Rossi said. "We share the same values and we have pretty much the same vision on the court and off the court."

In fact, Kauffmann is so sure of how much the senior captain cares about the success of his team that he is cautioning Rossi against shouldering too much of a burden.

"I think sometimes he maybe puts too much pressure on himself to carry the load of the team and take care of everybody," Kauffmann said. "I told him, 'Listen, you've got one doubles, one singles. That's one-and-a-half points, take care of those.' "

The good news for Rossi is that he knows he doesn't have to do it alone.

"I'm not the only leader on the team. I think we have some great leaders and I'm not the only one," Rossi said, citing juniors Tom Jomby, Alejandro Gomez, Panav Jha and Maks Gold.

Rossi was limited at times during the fall due to injury, but is now healthy. Kauffmann knows it will take some time to get in the swing of things, but he couldn't be more confident about how good Rossi will be when he does.

"I know he's going to put pressure on himself through the beginning of the season, but once he gets his groove I think he'll be just fine," Kauffmann said. "He's one of the best players in the country. I know it. He knows it. He just has to feel it on the court and it's coming."

Even when Rossi does reach that point and is winning his one-and-a-half points a match regularly, the rest of the team will be responsible for the other two-and-a-half needed to win. This weekend's doubleheader will be a chance for some trial and error when it comes to the UK lineup, but no matter how it shakes out, the newcomers are going to be called on.

Five of the 12 players on the roster are in their first college season: freshmen Kevin Lai, Juan Pablo Murra, Beck Pennington and Michael Binder and sophomore Brett Johnson. It remains to be seen just how much of a role they play, but they will need to produce for the Cats to fulfill their expectations.

During the fall, the newest Cats flashed plenty of potential. More importantly, they demonstrated humility and the ability to listen.

"Whatever the upperclassmen told them to do, they did. Whatever the coaching staff told them to do, they did," Kauffmann said. "I'm as proud with this freshman class as any since I've been here. They do whatever they can to get better, so I'm expecting some big things."

Demanding big things might be more like it.

"I tell my freshmen the fall for them was their freshman year," Kauffmann said. "Now they should be acting like sophomores. I don't want to talk about freshman mistakes again."

Kauffmann is asking his newcomers to go from willing listeners to active participants. Rossi and his fellow upperclassmen might have been part of it for longer, but Kauffmann is telling the youngest Cats that they must take ownership of their program too. Within a couple years, it will be those players responsible for leading and sustaining the momentum of a very successful past for the men's tennis program, with Kauffmann's guidance of course.

"We've created, Coach Emery and I, in the last couple years a good culture," Kauffmann said. "We still have that. The only way that goes away is if I don't do a good job recruiting or if I don't do a good job with my practices and my guys."

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