JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARBULLETIN.COM
Freshman Dennis Lajola has helped Hawaii to its first NCAA tournament appearance.
Tough tennis foe for UH men
The team's confidence is high entering the first round of the NCAA tournament
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Their task is tall, but their confidence couldn't be higher.
The Hawaii men's tennis team departs today for Malibu, Calif., and its inaugural NCAA tournament appearance. The Rainbow Warriors are fresh off their first Western Athletic Conference tournament championship.
A tough opponent awaits on Saturday in No. 13 Pepperdine, which boasts a 15-match winning streak to Hawaii's six.
Behind the play of freshman Dennis Lajola, sophomore Andreas Weber and junior Sascha Heinemann, the Rainbow Warriors feel they match up exceptionally well with other teams' best players.
"We know that we're as good as any 1-2-3 in the country, and in doubles too," Lajola said. "We know we can beat anyone in doubles. So any time we play a top team, we always know we're in there -- especially if we're playing good. We have a chance to upset."
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Look beyond the overall record and pay no heed to the uncharted territory.
UH MEN'S TENNIS|
NCAA Division I championships, first round, No. 63 Hawaii (8-10) at No. 13 Pepperdine (18-6), Saturday, 8 a.m. (Hawaii time)
The list of firsts for the Hawaii men's tennis team has lengthened considerably over the last two weeks. And fifth-year coach John Nelson has no intention of letting the bullets stop with: first NCAA tournament appearance in the 64-team format.
The 8-10 Rainbow Warriors rolled through the Western Athletic Conference tournament last month with stunning wins over No. 32 Boise State and No. 49 Fresno State and extending their winning streak to six. Now, the team's sights couldn't be higher.
Nelson has his eyes set on the Sweet 16 and beyond starting Saturday, and believes he has the horses to get there.
"Oh, no," the newly minted WAC coach of the year said. "If you're satisfied, you're done. A lot of my background has been martial arts (a black belt in jujitsu), and I bring a lot of that here. Be in the present, do the right thing, don't worry about winning, don't worry about results."
The Nelson effect has trickled down to his players.
JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARBULLETIN.COM
Sascha Heinemann helped turn around the Hawaii tennis program when he was the WAC's freshman of the year in 2006.
"That's where everyone needs to be, we can't have small goals, or else you can never achieve any higher than that," echoed Dennis Lajola, the WAC freshman of the year. "We expect to get to the Sweet 16, we're not content with winning the WAC, even though it was great, first time ever. We always wanted to make NCAAs and go far."
A tall task awaits in host No. 13 Pepperdine (18-6), which has won 15 straight dual matches. If No. 63 Hawaii gets beyond the Waves, it faces the winner of No. 22 Stanford and No. 58 UC Santa Barbara in the round of 32.
Still, behind the talented threesome of Lajola, Andreas Weber and Sascha Heinemann, the 'Bows feel they can contend with anyone at the top three singles courts. Those players have taken the last three WAC freshman of the year awards in succession.
"It wasn't my goal to start a tradition," said Heinemann, a junior who won the first of the awards in 2006. "It's basically just falling into place. Let's see how far it's going to go. Definitely good times."
It hasn't been just the "Big Three." While they combined for a 38-10 mark in dual singles matches, it fell upon the back half of the rotation, Spence Mendoza and Jeff Fitch, to carry Hawaii in the WAC tournament.
Mendoza won key matches against the Broncos and Bulldogs, while Fitch, the fastest server on the team, broke a 3-3 tie with BSU with a three-set gutty performance in the semifinals. It allowed the 'Bows to advance to their first WAC title match.
The groundwork for the team's success was laid three years ago when Heinemann came on board from Germany because of the pedigree of the Hawaii coach.
Heinemann helped convince his friend and countryman, Weber, to arrive a year later. And because of the caliber of teammates he'd have to practice against, Lajola, a highly-touted international junior circuit player from Aiea, chose to return home from Florida to play college tennis.
Still, things got off to a rough start this year with a 2-10 overall mark. Of the 10 losses, five were decided 4-3.
Nelson, who previously coached NCAA champions at San Diego State and UC Davis, told his team they were just steps removed from turning things around. He pointed out a 4-3 loss to No. 18 Florida State that showed his team it was close.
Instead of attempting new tactics, he told his team to get back in their comfort zones and do what felt natural. Starting with a 5-2 win at No. 66 UC Irvine to begin the current win streak, the tactic worked.
"John Nelson's just insane," said Heinemann, who meant it in the nicest way possible. "His work ethic is unbelievable. He's working with us in the morning, we can come out whenever we want to and he's willing to work with us."
The coach is playing down the significance of their upcoming match.
"We expect to win, but we're gonna do the right thing," Nelson said. "And if we make a big deal about it, then we're out of our comfort zone. All season long we've worked on putting pressure on people, and we certainly have nothing to lose."