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Lajola leads UH title defense


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POSTED: Thursday, April 23, 2009

Dennis Lajola's mind can be his greatest ally or his worst enemy.

Lajola and his Hawaii teammates hope it's the former when the Warriors host the Western Athletic Conference men's tennis championships starting tomorrow at UH.

Third-seeded Hawaii (7-9, 4-2 WAC) opens up defense of its first league championship against sixth-seeded Idaho (16-9, 1-5) in the quarterfinals at 3 p.m.

Lajola, UH's No. 1 singles wizard, has knocked off some impressive competition in his sophomore season, signs that the Aiea native is living up to his deep potential after arriving as a highly decorated junior circuit player out of prep school in the Philippines.

He's ranked No. 60 in collegiate singles and is the WAC's reigning player of the week after knocking off USC's Robert Farah, who enjoyed some time as the top-ranked player in the country earlier this season. Lajola is an impressive 7-1 against Pac-10 players this season and is 9-5 overall in dual matches for UH.

Still, there were some pitfalls against lesser competition that left Lajola scratching his head.

“;I would say that, right now, if I'm playing well my mind is my biggest weapon,”; the 5-foot-9 Lajola said. “;If I'm mentally strong and mentally clear on what I need to do, focus, it's tough for me to lose.”;

He acknowledged past struggles to maintain his focus on the court, when he started to think too much.

“;Yeah, that's when I usually struggle,”; he explained. “;Even this season, there's times where I get sidetracked with everything outside of tennis.

“;School, anything else, personal things. That's when I usually break down and then when I kind of struggle. But I'm getting better at it—me and my coach (John Nelson) are working on that where anything happens, just leave it out.”;

Nelson, who's coached individual and team national champions at his previous stops (UC Davis and San Diego State), thinks Lajola can make it on the ATP Tour and calls him “;one of the best players I've coached.”;

“;Technically, he's a lot better, and mentally, he's a lot better,”; Nelson said. “;His mental discipline is a lot better, staying focused on what he's doing.”;

Getting Lajola—a winner in five of his last six matches—off to a good start will be key if the Warriors are to make a run at a second straight NCAA tournament berth. UH's first draw is favorable—it swept the Vandals 7-0 in their regular-season meeting.

Lajola points to senior Sascha Heinemann—a winner of 10 straight matches in No. 4 singles—as the catalyst when the team is “;feisty,”; and hence, successful. When the German gets his teammates jacked up, it's infectious.

“;You cannot underestimate any players,”; said Heinemann, echoing his coach's mantra. “;Once you start thinking it's going to be easy, you're not going to prepare as well, play as well. So we do have to prepare, see this as our only match and afterwards we can look at other teams. But we have to play this match first.”;

Hawaii is hosting the WAC men's and women's tennis tourneys for the first time since 2005, when both UH teams were bounced in the quarterfinals by SMU.