Special season for Skyhawks
Published 11:33 pm Friday, May 10, 2019
By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY
They’ve been a team on a mission.
The 2017-2018 season was a successful one for the Point University men’s tennis team, which went 15-8 and reached the semifinals of the conference tournament while finishing with a number 24 national ranking in the NAIA.
The Skyhawks wanted more, though.
“We didn’t make it to nationals last year, and that was one of the goals was to get there this year,” said Chad Simpson, who is in his fifth season as Point’s head coach.
The Skyhawks have achieved that mission.
Point (15-6), which saw its 12-match winning streak come to a close in the Appalachian Athletic Conference, have earned an invitation to the NAIA national tournament, and it will play either Cumberlands or Coastal Georgia on Wednesday in Mobile, Ala.
“It seems like every challenge we’ve faced we’ve risen up to it, and succeeded,” said Sam Blackburn, a senior from Enterpise, Ala. “I’m not counting out anything for the rest of the year. We just have to take it one day at a time and play with all our hearts.”
The Skyhawks are one of the country’s hottest teams heading into nationals.
After losing to top-ranked Georgia Gwinentt College in February, Point went on a 12-match winning streak that included a huge home win over Reinhardt, which was ranked second in the country at the time.
Point’s winning streak came to a close with a loss to 11th-ranked Union College in the semifinals of the AAC tournament.
While that was a disappointing loss, the Skyhawks had done more than enough to earn an at-large bid to the NAIA national tournament.
A goal that the players and coaches set out to achieve had been realized, and Blackburn believes what happened last season helped make it a reality.
“That was something that drove us,” Blackburn said. “Last year we had some big expectations with the guys we had. We feel like we had better potential. That kind of fueled the fire for us this year, and it definitely created a different kind of atmosphere in our weight room and on the practice court. I don’t think we’d be here without the disappointing season last year.”
The high point of the season was the home win over Reinhardt on April 10.
After losing two of the three doubles matches, Point captured four of the six singles matches to secure the 5-4 win.
“They’ve won our conference four straight years,” Simpson said. “To beat the number two team in the country was pretty spectacular.”
It’s mostly the same group of players from last season, with a few exceptions.
The most noteworthy exception is at number one singles, a spot that has been held down by first-year player Christian Garay from Phenix City, Ala.
The 22-year-old Garay was an accomplished junior player, but he never played for a high-school or a college team. Garay has stepped in and become one of the country’s top players, and he said the team is “extremely confident” heading to nationals.
“We like our chances versus anybody, against any team,” said Garay, who is 26-5 in singles and was named the AAC player of the year. “That was kind of the big appealing thing to come here is it’s a team that’s coming up and it felt like they had a lot to prove. It felt like last year they sort of under-achieved and were looking to do better. So joining this team, it felt like we had a chip on our shoulder all year. I had stuff I wanted to prove, and they did as well, so it kind of fit perfectly.”
While Garay has clearly done his part this season, the strength of Point’s team is its depth, with everyone who steps onto the court getting the job done.
“In college, you need everyone,” Garay said. “It’s like a well-oiled machine. Once it starts going, then you see how well it plays out. So we definitely need every single guy on this team to play a role or a part. Even the ones that aren’t playing have helped. Everyone contributed.”
Another one of Point’s top players is Argentina’s Federico Barbon, who is 24-8 at number two singles, while Joe Klokow is 18-13 while most playing number three singles.
Sam Blackburn, Julien Pereira, Patrick Tobacco, Clayton Godfrey have also had suand ccessful seasons at singles and doubles.
“The team really turned over two years ago,” Simpson said. “We brought in six new starters last year, and all six of them came back this year, and we were able to add a new number one. It’s kind of been a two-year journey to try to figure it out. This year, we had more expectations.”
Not surprisingly considering the success the Skyhawks have enjoyed this season, they cleaned up when the AAC awards were announced.
Garay was named the conference’s player of the year, as well as the freshman of the year.
Earning first-team all-conference honors were Barbon and Klokow, and senior Kyle Howell received an AAC Champions of Character Award.
Barbon has enjoyed a dominant season with a 24-7 singles record, and Klokow is 18-12 in singles.
Simpson, who has helped build Point into a national powerhouse, was named the AAC coach of the year.
Simpson, who played tennis at Liberty University, came to Point from Champaign, Ill. where he was the athletics director at Countryside School.
“I was picturing something more year-round, trying to be there as a mentor, and leading them through life as they’re making those major decisions,” Simpson said. “So that’s what started it. And Point being a Christian school stood out.”