As spring creeps closer, Mississippi State will be showcasing several of its top programs, and the Bulldog tennis team is leading the way, already 2-0 and ranked No. 11 in the country, with both victories coming over ranked opponents.
2012 was a breakthrough season for MSU, with the Dawgs getting all the way up to a No. 9 national ranking on their way to the postseason. Now, the challenge in 2013 is to build on that success, and do so with the loss of three big seniors from last year’s team.
“We’re definitely not wanting to have that be our best year. I came here to be a top-five program and a chance to win the NCAA. We have to continue to get better,” Nilsson said. “The next step up is a little harder, to get into that top five mix. We can do it. We just have to continue to work hard.”
While the loss of talented and experienced seniors certainly doesn’t help, the void has been filled with four more-than-able freshmen, led by Romain Bogaerts, already MSU’s top singles player and the No. 25 singles player in the nation.
Two more of the young pups have already worked their way into the doubles lineup as the freshmen and veterans have meshed well early on.
The key for MSU, Nilsson said, will be maintaining the success over the course of the season.
“Last year, I kind of knew what we had,” Nilsson said. “I knew what window we were in as a far as level and where we could go. This year, I’m not really sure. I feel like we could be really good. But I also know being that young and inexperienced, I could see us have some let downs and have to bounce back from them. I don’t see us not being able to beat anyone. I just think it’s gonna maybe be a little more up and down year.”
Leading the way among those veterans is junior Malte Stropp, who had a big year as a sophomore and is currently ranked the No. 81 player in the country in singles, while also leading the charge with MSU’s top doubles tandem.
Nilsson said he will be counting on seniors James Chaudry and Ethan Wilkinson, as well as junior Zach White, to provide not just consistency, but leadership to the four freshmen as State traverses the difficult SEC schedule.
“Because they’ve done it,” Nilsson said. “They’ve been there. They know. They’re not gonna be surprised by anything. They have to lead, whether it’s emotionally or verbally or whatever it is. They have to be able to take the new guys under their wing and kinda lead the way. It’ll be someone different each week.”
Nilsson mentioned the atmosphere of college tennis being something the youth on his team is not accustomed to, but when it comes to home matches, it ought to only help.
The Bulldogs, while playing their way into a Top-10 ranking, began drawing big numbers for their home crowds, much larger than they had been used to.
And unlike professional tennis, the crowd is encouraged to get into the match, have fun and, basically, do whatever they would do at a football or basketball game.
“The best thing about college tennis is that it doesn’t have to be the golf/tennis clap. You can get rowdy out there,” Nilsson said. “It’s a sport on campus that people are realizing, hey, it’s fun to go watch. We’re not just sitting there. We’re involved and the crowd can really help us. I tell the guys all the time, if you want the crowd to come, you have to get them involved, make them feel like they’re as much a part of the match as you are. They can swing matches, they can get on the other team. It makes it a lot of fun for everybody.”
Indeed, when a singles or doubles match is over, MSU players head into the stands, join the crowd and cheer for their teammates still in action.
Nilsson and his guys are hoping for more of those big crowds this weekend as MSU is a host site in the ITA Kickoff Weekend, with top-25 ranked Auburn, LSU and Indiana all coming to town. The Bulldogs’ first match comes Saturday afternoon at 1 against LSU.
As his team continues to climb in the polls, play in big matches and enjoy the postseason, Nilsson is hoping MSU’s reputation can continue to grow.
“I think rumors are spreading a little bit that we’re developing players and it’s really fun to play in front of our crowds. True rumors,” Nilsson said. “It’s great that the community and the people of campus are supporting us. Everybody wants to play in front of people, and we’ve done a good job. We’ve had the sororities out. The guys love that.”