By Jeff Odom
Saint Leo University (SLU) tennis wasn’t making waves around the Sunshine State Conference (SSC) when coach James Bryce joined the program in 2009.
That year the women won only eight matches, while the men sputtered to a 3-20 record, winless in the SSC.
Now, Bryce has turned both programs into solid winners.
The SLU women set a program-record with 18 wins last season, finishing ranked No. 12 in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) Division-II poll. The men reached the 14-win mark, earning a spot in the NCAA tournament for the first time ever.
Bryce, who coaches both squads, said his players were exceptional, and the primary goal this year is to do it all over again.
“It’s been a tough road to get the program to where it is now,” said Bryce, who was named the 2011-12 South Region Coach of the Year by the ITA. “A lot of long hours and long weeks and everything, but this is my passion. This is what I enjoy doing, and I’m looking forward to having much more success in the future.”
One of the big reasons why the women had their best season ever was junior Laura Kemkes.
Kemkes, who was named to the All-SSC First-Team in singles, was 16-4 in solo competition and won 18 matches with teammate Emily Singleton in doubles. She said she still wants to accomplish more.
“We made it to regionals, which was our goal, and made it to the finals and almost nationals and missed it by a little,” Kemkes said. “We still were very happy with our season. … We have new goals that should motivate us, and we’re trying to get to nationals.”
During the fall tournaments earlier this month, Kemkes was forced to sit out all but one match because of a back injury she has had since birth. Bryce said the training staff set up new exercises for her to work through it.
“We sat her out the last two weekends, just knowing that was the right move to get her back healthy for the spring,” Bryce said. “She’s been working with one of the trainers, Susan (Cross), very closely, and our strength and conditioning staff to get stronger in that region as well.”
On the men’s side, senior Victor Lozier and junior Matt Nicholson-Lewis carried the team with 16 wins in doubles competition, and were ranked 11th in the country as a duo.
Lozier said the future is bright for the program because of the new additions coming in.
“I think we’ve recruited some good players, one from Brazil and one from Poland,” Lozier said. “I think they can help our team in doubles so we can improve our doubles team. We know what we have to do. It’ll be hard, but we should do it pretty good.”
Nicholson-Lewis echoed his teammate, and added he would like to take home some accolades as well as victories.
“This is going to be the year we do best,” Nicholson-Lewis said. “We’re focused on doubles, because last year we struggled in some of the lower pairs. (Bryce) is focused on consistency, keeping the ball in. It’s a team game; we got to pump each other up.”
Bryce said while the winning is great, seeing his players do well academically is a primary goal. Looking ahead to the future, Bryce would like both teams to accomplish just as much as they did last season, both on the court and in the classroom, and looks forward to keeping SLU on the map.
“We’ve got a gutsy team this year,” Bryce said. “We’ve got a team that’s willing to fight hard for one another, support one another, and it’s not always going to be an easy road. We’re going to have some adversity. … Every day, we’re just trying to get a little bit better. If you can walk onto the court and say I did better than yesterday, then they’re doing their job right and I’m doing my job right.”