With a program in the balance and a new headman unexpectedly at the helm, each member of Knox College’s men’s tennis conceivably has had every opportunity and excuse to call it a career.
But amidst the adversity, they appear to be fighting harder than ever.
John Baillie, the tennis coordinator, summed up his team so far in one word.
“Committed,” Baillie said. “The team found itself in a difficult situation and has had every reason to not want to play, but that’s not what they’re about. They’ve shown so far that they’re committed to working hard and having a winning season.”
To do so, and in order to overcome a 3-15 overall record from last season, the team will also have to overcome its significant lack of upperclassmen experience. The Fire has but one senior and two juniors on its online roster, with the other six members all being freshmen and sophomores. Knox’s captain, Eric Hane, is a sophomore transfer student. But Baillie sees potential for leadership in his young guns.
“Our upperclassmen have done a solid job,” Baillie said, “but with us being so young, a couple freshmen and sophomores, especially our top couple of guys, have taken advantage of the situation and are looking forward to taking the helm and showing leadership.”
Baillie, also an assistant coach with the Knox men’s basketball and women’s soccer teams, takes over a program left hanging by the recent departures of numerous head coaches after their respective first years. Last year’s coach, Amanda Barkema, left in the previous term to pursue a graduate assistant’s position at Western Illinois University.
Although Baillie readily admits that he has limited experience in the tennis courts, he has been working with a similar passion in order to put the program back on the right track.
“I’m taking the same approach that I use in other sports, and that’s been the biggest adjustment so far,” Baillie said. “They bring me some intricate knowledge of the game that I need, and I think I’ve brought them a commitment to athleticism and fitness. The first two weeks of our practices were a ‘boot camp’ with plyometrics, running, lifting and other conditioning. The team sticking with it proves they’re in it to win. They bring the drills to practice, and they’ve shown self-drive and self-motivation. And those two things will benefit them immensely as this season goes on, and later in life as well.”
Baillie’s goals for the team match his early season intensity.
“I don’t want us to ever find ourselves out of any match. We have the talent level to at least compete with any team we’ll play, and that’s the first time I can remember saying that about a men’s tennis team here. We have a legitimate chance to make the conference tournament and be one of the upper half of teams in the Midwest Conference.”
The Prairie Fire has already had two chances to do their new coach proud with matches against both Augustana College and Judson University on Feb. 13. The Fire struggled against the former, but dominated the latter in matches that were decided by 0-9 and 6-3 scores.
In the victory over Judson, Knox won individual matches in the number one (Hane), two (freshman David Ham), three (freshman Shawn Mulani), four (senior Brian Leddy), and six (sophomore Runtian Bai) spots and the number one doubles spot (Hane and Mulani).
The Prairie Fire will again take to the court this weekend in Jacksonville, Ill., with matches against Beloit College and the host, Illinois College. The latter match against the Blueboys will serve as the Midwest Conference opener for Knox.