Before the USC men’s tennis team can bring an unprecedented fourth consecutive NCAA championship to Heritage Hall, it must begin its journey on the other side of the country.
Nearly a week after accepting their championship rings last Saturday, the No. 1 Trojans will travel to Cambridge, Mass., to compete against No. 72 Harvard, No. 34 Michigan and No. 10 Texas A&M in the Harvard Crimson Invitational on Friday through Sunday. But 2011 Pac-10 Coach of the Year Peter Smith and company will have their work cut out with them with the absence of senior Steve Johnson, who, after finishing No. 1 in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association rankings, opted to forgo his fall semester in preparation for turning professional.
In his place, sophomore Ray Sarmiento, along with seniors Daniel Nguyen and Emilio Gomez, hope to shoulder up the load, with the three entering the season ranked No. 15, No. 16 and No. 66 respectively. As a freshman last season, Sarmiento received ITA All-American honors with Johnson after reaching the NCAA singles round of 16 and winning the 2011 Pac-10 doubles championship with Johnson.
“[Sarmiento] is very athletic,” associate head coach George Husack said. “Last year he matured a lot in playing dual matches and certainly has developed pretty well.”
Nguyen and Gomez each played a large role in topping No. 1 Virginia to clinch USC’s third consecutive championship last spring, and for the second year in a row, Nguyen clinched the championship for the Trojans with a win over No. 34 Sanam Singh. Meanwhile, Gomez went 4-0 in team tournament play, landing him NCAA All-Tournament honors.
The two also received All Pac-10 Honorable Mentions and will help maintain a veteran presence with senior Ben Lankenau for a Trojans team that welcomes four freshmen to the squad.
One of these freshmen is the promising Yannick Hanfmann, who joins the Trojans from Germany. He is ranked No. 2 in ITA Newcomers/Freshmen rankings and No. 932 in Association of Tennis Professionals rankings. Hanfmann’s ATP rank is impressive for his young age, considering no one else from the team is presently ranked.
“[Hanfmann] is one of the best young fellows in Germany,” Husack said. “He’s a big guy with a big game. He still has a lot of maturing and developing to do, but he’s going to help us a lot.”
Sophomores Corey Smith and Michael Grant and freshmen Eric Johnson, John Meadows and Jonny Wang round out the rest of the young, talented roster.
While USC’s aim is unquestionably to notch a fourth straight NCAA title, it insists its focus is on the Harvard Crimson weekend invitational, as it prepares for what might become a historic season.