The men’s tennis team earned a fourth-place finish at the North Coast Athletic Conference Tournament, which concluded on April 26, capping off a 12–11 season. Head Coach Eric Ishida was named NCAC Coach of the Year following the tournament, while sophomore Ian Paik and first-year Michael Drougas also earned NCAC accolades.
In the first match of the NCAC tournament, the fifth-seeded Yeomen earned an exciting 5–3 upset over the fourth-seeded Wabash College Little Giants. After falling 5–4 to the Little Giants during the regular season, the team made a statement in doubles competition, coming out strong with victories in the second and third flights.
The second-flight pairing of Paik and Drougas kicked off an intense evening of competition with an 8–4 victory, and sophomores Abe Davis and Billy Lennon soon followed with an 8–4 win at the No. 3 doubles spot. The No. 1 doubles pairing of senior captain Soren Zeliger and junior Callan Louis, ranked 12th in the region, almost completed the sweep, but the impressive Wabash first flight team, ranked third in the region, got the best of Oberlin’s pair, winning 8–6.
Assistant Coach Kevin Papen said later that the strong showing in doubles paved the way for a successful day.
“Going up 2–1 after doubles definitively set the tone that we were there to win that day, and it helped show the guys that we [could] take [the match],” he said in an email to the Review. “It helped so much because we knew that they were good at every singles position. Knowing you’re up after doubles is such a mental relief when you start your singles matches.”
In the February dual match between the two teams, the Yeomen were ahead 2–1 at the doubles break but faltered in singles and dropped four of the six matches. It was a different story on Friday, however, as they kept the early momentum going, thanks to strong performances at the bottom of the line-up from Lennon and first-year Manickam Manickam. Manickam earned a decisive 6–1, 6–3 fifth-flight victory to put the team up 3–1, and on the neighboring court, Lennon soon followed, winning a tight 6–4 first set before blanking his Wabash opponent 6–0 in the second.
As the men predicted, Wabash did not lie down, and the opposing team fought back to win the third and fourth singles slots over Louis and Davis. When No. 2 Drougas dropped the first set 3–6, it looked as if Wabash may have mounted a comeback. However, Drougas did not waiver and turned the match around, winning the next two sets 6–3, 6–3 to clinch the Yeomen’s bid to the semi-finals.
The win under pressure was nothing new for Drougas, and the mental strength and tactical prowess he showed in those situations throughout the year helped him win the NCAC Newcomer of the Year award. That marks the third year in a row that a Yeoman has been named Newcomer of the Year, with Paik and Louis earning the honor in the past two years. Drougas finished the year with a stellar 20–7 singles record and a 13–6 record in dual matches.
Papen said that Drougas has shown himself to be a player they can count on in the clutch.
“It is great as a coach knowing that you have someone that, when it gets tough or close, has more grit than his opponent,” he said. “In pretty much all of his close three-setters, I haven’t been my most nervous because I’ve known that as long as [the coaches] stayed in his ear to keep playing the right way, he was going to pull it out.”
Drougas posted yet another impressive performance in the conference semi-finals, teaming up with partner Paik to earn Oberlin’s lone point in the match against the top-seeded Kenyon College Lords, who came in ranking second in the region and ninth in the country. The Yeomen hung tight with the Lords — who went on to win the championship — in all three doubles matches but eventually fell 5–1.
The weekend concluded in Gambier, Ohio, as the Yeomen tried to reverse a 6–3 loss in the regular season against the Denison University Big Red in the third-place match. There would be no such vengeance, however, as Denison earned an impressive 5–0 win over the Yeomen.
Despite the back-to-back losses that ended the season, the team’s strong performance throughout the weekend, especially the close doubles matches with Kenyon, a Division III powerhouse, demonstrated how far the men’s program has come in the first three years of Ishida’s reign as head coach.
Just this year, Manickam has seen his game improve under Ishida’s guidance.
“I really learned how to stay relaxed and focus on the right things when on the court this year. When you think about playing for your team rather than for yourself and just focus on getting your point for Oberlin, tennis just becomes a lot more fun,” he said. “I am definitely looking forward to [continuing to] work with Eric and improving for next year.”
Paik also believes that Ishida’s coaching improved his confidence in his own game.
“Over the past two years, I’ve just become a more solid player mentally and physically,” he said. “I make the shots I used to miss and trust that I’ll be able to do it day in and day out,” he said.
Paik certainly proved himself to be a solid player in his sophomore season, earning first-team all-NCAC honors.
Paik credits his success to his supportive teammates and coaches.
“Although it’s an individual award, it was definitely a team effort. There’s absolutely no way that this season would’ve turned out the way it did for me without everyone on the team along with Eric and Kevin,” he said.
The men will look to build on the spring season’s success next semester, when they will return with their entire roster other than Zeliger. This year’s team of mostly first-years and sophomores will look to translate increased experience into continued success.
“I think that going from one of the youngest teams in the region to a team that is predominantly upperclassmen will definitely help us,” Paik said. “Using that extra big match experience, we should be able to get past the hurdles that have plagued us in seasons past. It’s starting to show this year by handling the teams we were supposed to beat, winning matches we were not favored in and getting to the final four of Conferences.”