SKILLMAN (N.Y.) -- West Virginia Wesleyan men's tennis team will begin their pursuit of a 10th consecutive Division II NCAA regional berth as the No. 6 team in the Atlantic Region, according to the first ranking from the Intercollegiate Tennis Association. The Bobcats held the same position in the final ranking of 2016.
Six teams qualify for the NCAA tournament in the region. The PSAC, MEC and CIAA conference champions receive and automatic bid, along with the next three highest ranked teams in the final poll.
"It's about where we expected to be to start out," said head coach Marc Walters, who begins his fifth spring at the helm after a 19-6 campaign and his fourth trip to the NCAA tournament as a Bobcat.
"We have a really nice group of freshmen this season, several of which have shown they can make big contributions to the lineup this spring. Since we didin't lose anyone from the top seven last year, I expect we will be in the mix for the MEC title and another NCAA bid."
Winning the conference's automatic bid may be the best path for the Bobcats this year, judging from the initial ranking. Only the the top six teams make the NCAA tournament from this region, and the rankings show the MEC is in a precarious position to start out the season.
West Liberty, who are two-time defending MEC tournament champions, is the highest rated MEC team at No. 5, just ahead of the Bobcats. Charleston comes in at No. 7 while Fairmont State debuts at No. 10.
The top four spots are held by perennial power Bluefield State, PSAC contenders Edinboro and Mercyhurst, and CIAA champion Chowan. BSU is an independant, which means they would take an at-large bid away from other teams in contention who don't finish first in their league.
Chowan and Shaw, ranked at No. 9, will also muddy the landscape for the Bobcats. The Hawks defeated Wesleyan in last year's NCAA first round, while Shaw has been a formidable opponent in each of the last several years.
"No doubt that the region is deeper than just a few years ago, and the resurgence of programs at Mercyhurst, Chowan, Edinboro, and Fairmont State show that depth," said Walters. "I know the team we had that went to the Sweet 16 would have a hard time just making the field now, and the quality of the players at the 4-6 spots is much higher than it was just two seasons back. It's a fun time to be playing DII, and this team should make a good run based on their experience and leadership."
Individually, several Bobcats were recognized for their fall results with singles and doubles rankings.
Laipold, a freshman from Austria, earned the top spot in the Bobcat lineup this fall following his semi-final run at the ITA regional tournament. He also played with Pierre-Olivier Bedard to win the "B" Draw doubles in the same event.
Rodriguez, who was a first team All-MEC selection spring, won the West Liberty Invitational by turning back No. 3 ranked Alexander Rudenco of Bluefield State in the finals for his best fall result. Paired with fellow junior Nassar, they made the finals of the West Liberty event with several keys wins as part of a strong fall segment.
Sabate and Berga were also on the All-MEC squad last year after their first full seasons in the lineup, and they held down the top doubles spot all year for the 'Cats. They were a healthy 17-10 overall and had solid wins against Chowan, Charleston, and Davis and Elkins among their ranked opponents.
"I kid them all by calling them the Venezuelan Express (Rodriguez and Nassar) and the Spanish Armada (Sabate and Berga)," said Walters of his doubles teams. "But the fact is they have reached a higher level than I had expected and much of that success comes from their communication and chemistry. They compete together better because of that factor."
Wesleyan opens the spring on Feb. 4 with a pair of Division II opponents when they travel north to play Daeman College and Roberts Wesleyan in New York. Both matches will be held at the Miller Tennis center in Buffalo.