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Creighton Tennis Talk (2/10)

The spring sports season is underway, and with it comes the beginning of Creighton Bluejays tennis for 2010. Both the men’s and women’s teams hit the courts in the past few weeks, preparing for what promises to be a challenging schedule.

Both the men and women will be in action in Omaha this Friday night, with 7 p.m. home matches against the Missouri-Kansas City Kangaroos at the Hanscom Indoor Tennis Center. The building will be buzzing with Bluejays tennis, as the men will conduct play on one half of the center and the women on the other side.

Ahead of this week’s home matches, White & Blue Review caught up with Creighton head tennis coach Tom Lilly to talk about his teams’ play so far this spring, a few positive surprises from some younger players, and what his teams contribute to the Creighton community off the court.

White & Blue Review: The men’s team had a bit of a lull in the spring portion of its schedule, following a season-opening loss to Nebraska and then a weekend full of tennis at the MVC Championships in Des Moines. How have the men’s players used their practice and preparation time in the weeks between the MVC event and this Friday’s home opener versus UMKC?

Tom Lilly: We have worked the men’s team pretty hard on and off the court since we have had a few weeks without any outside competition. We learned a lot about our guys and their strengths and weaknesses at the match against Nebraska and the MVC Tournament. Our practices have been about addressing how to improve each player and therefore, the team.

We found out some things we already knew, including that we have a lot of players that can step in and win matches for us — our depth is the best I have ever seen it. In tennis this means that for every dual match we play there will be some good players watching and not getting in the match. I have asked all of them to give a great effort in practices and good things will happen for them, but that they need to play a role on the team in a positive manner whether they are in the match or not that particular day.

WBR: Speaking of the MVC Championship event a few weeks ago, some of the Bluejays experienced success against ranked foes. Did your men’s team start its individual season like you thought it might, or did anything surprise you with their outcomes and efforts?

TL: Billy Paluch and J.T. Christian have really played well together and definitely improved a lot from the fall semester as a doubles team. This helped them beat two regionally ranked doubles teams as well as one nationally ranked doubles team, Illinois State’s #1 duo. I am really not that surprised by those wins at individuals because we have known all along that they can be a very explosive team. The entire team has raised the level of doubles play as well and I don’t think we should be surprised if we win a lot of doubles points this year during our dual matches.

WBR: The women have been a bit busier than the men’s squad, with contests against Nebraska, Wichita State, North Dakota, Arkansas-Little Rock, and Wyoming already completed. How have the players progressed from the start of the semester? What has surprised you most as a coach?

TL: The women played two nationally ranked teams to start the year (the Huskers and Shockers) and I believe that Wyoming is going to be there by the end of the year as well. This was good for our girls to face some really tough teams early and use them as opportunities for great wins, but also to improve their games. We had our chances against Arkansas-Little Rock but just didn’t win the big points and didn’t have a fully focused team for that match. That is the coach’s fault. I thought our girls fought hard against an improved North Dakota team and nobody let up despite a great effort from their opponents.

The thing I am the most surprised about is that we do not have a definite doubles line up yet and I thought after the fall semester and a few duals, we would know our line up at this time. Senior Lindsey Erickson has stepped up her play this semester and has added another wrinkle into our doubles plans after coming back from her foot surgery over the summer. We hope what we do this Friday will work against UMKC and if not, we will go back to the “drawing board” and work some other combinations.

WBR: Individually, who for the men’s and women’s squads have set the tone for their respective teams, both in practice and in competition?

TL: We have a few new guys who have really set a tone for the men’s team in Paluch and Christian. J.T. is a really hard worker and takes a very business-like approach to practicing and working out. Billy has come in and gone straight to the top of our line up and just doesn’t let up in drills and practice sets. His talent has made everyone else step up and try to keep within his reach. We also have a lot of guys fighting for playing time and positions, upping the competitive atmosphere in practices and making everyone reach higher.

For the women, Tess Reddin has been our best player and is also a good leader by example. She’s not really a vocal leader, but she goes about her practices and matches with a desire to win that is noticeable. Regardless of who she plays, I always feel that Tess has a chance to win and she will never be a player that goes down without a fight. This is great for the rest of the team to see, and it has rubbed off on others who have also picked up their play.

WBR: Your men’s and women’s teams both perform exceptionally well in the classroom. What is it like as a coach and mentor to these student athletes when you see them have such positive academic performance?

TL: Our teams have traditionally done well in the classroom and that does make a coach’s life easier. Not having to worry about professors complaining about missed classes for competitions or that they are not getting their work done just gives me a few less things to worry about. Our men and women are working hard on the court but also know that school comes first and their education is what is going to set them up for the rest of their lives.

WBR: Speaking of outside the courts, your teams are involved in a couple community service projects in their free time. What types of groups does the Creighton Tennis program help? What do your student athletes do to help?

TL: Our teams have worked several different community service projects over the years including feeding the homeless at the Francis house, helping Habitat for Humanity, working in hospitals and aiding the Special Olympics. Our players do some of these on their own currently, but every week we work with folks at the Special Olympics.

Each Saturday we send players over to the Tennis Club in west Omaha to work with the tennis players involved in Special Olympics. It is a great program and our players get as much out of it as the players they are teaching and mentoring. Creighton University and the athletic department really stress giving back to the community and typically this is something that has drawn many of our players to Creighton. A lot of them did such things in high school and learned the value of helping others and we emphasize to all of them to give back to your community in any way possible.

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