Situated on the far west side of the University of Wisconsin campus is the Nielsen Tennis Center, home of the Wisconsin men’s tennis program. The stadium is far from downtown and remains largely unattended by Wisconsin students. Unlike its football and basketball counterparts, it barely feels a part of campus.
Whether it is because of the location or results on the court, the program has been an afterthought for both students and recruits over the years. Wisconsin has never been known for tennis.
But with the additions of new head coach Danny Westerman last season and assistant coach Scoville Jenkins two seasons ago, combined with the efforts of their underdog team and a few new faces, the label slapped on Wisconsin is slowly peeling away.
Men’s tennis: Badger at heart, Westerman finds success coaching those in familiar positionSome 18 years ago, a young man walked onto the University of Wisconsin campus unaware of just how connected his Read…
“I see us being a top 15 team in the next few years with the way we’re going, the kids we’re bringing in, the culture we’re establishing,” Jenkins said.” Everybody is being accountable for their actions, there’s no excuses.”
That is the buzz surrounding the program these days. It is the same program that finished the 2014-15 season with a 7-18 record and was nowhere close to being ranked. Yet in just one season — Westerman’s first year on the job — the team doubled their win total to finish 2015-16 at 14-9.
Despite ending the season with a six-match losing streak, there was plenty to admire. The team gathered five ranked wins, starting off 13-1 and reaching one of the program’s highest-ever rankings of No. 30 in the country.
“All of us, for the first time, were playing for something bigger than ourselves,” Westerman said. “We all felt the urgency of trying to play for an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament. We shifted our focus towards that rather than playing in the moment … we’ve all learned from it.”
Players have been hard at work back on campus, making up for the missed opportunity last season. Yet all of the effort was not a wash, for it attracted what the program has been lacking its entire existence: top recruits.
Enter Chase Colton, a Florida native who has been on the radar as one of the top recruits in the class of 2016 for some time now. Colton is a blue chip prospect, the highest ranking a player can receive, and one of just 28 graduating seniors nationally to hold the ranking. The incoming freshman is also the first blue chip recruit in Wisconsin history.
“It’s very special, and I hope it shows the types of players that we can attract here to Wisconsin,” Jenkins said. “Chase really embraced that he could be the first to break down the door and start up our program. He absolutely loved that and has been great so far.”
The UW coaches have praised his work ethic and drive as a player, but also the draw that signing him creates.
Colton signed before the spring season in November 2015, which turned many heads toward Wisconsin. The Colton-effect this April ended up attracting fellow Florida native Daniel Soyfer, a talented four-star recruit ranked No. 53 in the class of 2016 who boasts a 30-14 record against ranked opponents, and gained plenty of experience playing in Europe this summer.
Signing two players of their caliber is an accomplishment not to be overlooked. But it also indicates another, more subtle notion about Wisconsin tennis as a whole — the Badgers were able to recruit two warm weather players.
Men’s tennis: Wisconsin finding success as noisy neighbor of Big TenIn contrast to the usually tame atmosphere of collegiate and professional tennis, the Wisconsin men’s tennis team is set to enter Big Ten play as Read…
Many of the best players are from warmer regions that have longer outdoor seasons. Those players typically like to continue their play in those same places, which is why schools like USC, Stanford, UCLA and Georgia have historically dominated college tennis.
Signing the two athletes is not only a big step for the program, but also sheds the label that Wisconsin is not a choice destination. As junior Lamar Remy put it, UW is just as much of a tennis school as any other.
“Our facilities rival those of any of the other powerhouse schools,” Remy said. “I had the opportunity to see a few other great tennis schools while be recruited, and I feel we’re right there with them. With our coaches, they’re really helping kids with potential to break through and make us competitive.”
It has taken 95 years of play to get to this point, but if all goes according to plan, the Badgers will rank among the top 25 teams in the country for the first time in program history by their 100th season of play.
Men’s tennis: No. 36 Badgers gain valuable experience playing against nation’s bestThe match started rowdy, full of energy and exciting, but as quickly as those emotions filled members of the Wisconsin Read…
At least that’s the goal of Westerman and Jenkins at the moment. For the time being, the gate is open and Wisconsin may not have to be the scrappy underdog anymore.
“When we signed Chase we had a lot of top kids, especially in Florida where he’s from, have a lot of interest in us because they know how good of a player Chase is,” Jenkins said. “He really knows the game and a lot of the kids know this about him, so when he signed it brought about their interest. To get a player like him, they must see us going in a really good direction.”
With the direction the program is going in, it isn’t unreasonable that there won’t be crowds clad in red in the northwest part of campus someday. And for the recruits, well they already know what Wisconsin tennis is about.
This story has been updated.