Raise the banner.
That’s been the goal of the Webster University men’s tennis team’s seven seniors — Diego Alarcon, Francisco Cortez, Ricky Eaves, Wakeel Rahman, Josh Sellmeyer, Dustin Thode and Agustin Villalba — since they joined the program.
Throughout its history — a total of 27-plus seasons — the men’s tennis program has yet to earn a St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference title. In year 28, the team feels this is finally the season it can make history.
“This is as good of a senior class that you could hope for and ask for,” Sellmeyer said. “We’ve just worked and practiced together these last four years, and we’ve gotten to know each other really well. We just kind of made it happen. It wasn’t something we expected.
“If you look at the history of our program, it hasn’t been that great. But we knew we could change that culture, and I think we’ve been able to do that.”
Throughout their first three seasons on the team, the seven seniors helped compile a total of 39 wins. From 1990 to 2009, the Webster men’s tennis program had two three-win seasons, four two-win seasons, four one-win seasons and five no-win seasons.
Before 2010, the Gorloks had only one winning season — an 8-5 record in 1995.
Despite the team’s success in recent years, the main challenge for the seven seniors has been winning a SLIAC tournament championship. The Gorloks lost in the SLIAC tournament semifinals last year. The two preceding years, Webster fell in the SLIAC tournament championship. All those losses came at the hands of conference rival Westminster College (Mo.)
“It has to be our year,” Alarcon said. “We have been here four years — almost all of us — and we were always so close. … We need that championship. … So, we are going to play every day so hard and try to make it possible.”
Experience and diversity
Half of the 2013 men’s tennis roster is made up of seniors. Eaves said when this group first came to play tennis for Webster, the players “brought an attitude to the team that nobody was used to” and began to turn the program around.
The turnaround began instantly, as the Gorloks broke the school record for wins in 2010, 2011 — as well as 2012, with 12, 13 and 14 victories, respectively. Furthermore, the Gorloks, who are 12-1 this season, are just three wins away from another record-setting win total.
Coach Michael Siener said when he first took over as coach in 2006, it was a struggle to just get three or four players to attend practice. The current senior class has not only had success on the court, but off it as well. All seven seniors are on track to graduate, and a couple are multi-sport student athletes. Siener said some of them have GPAs above 3.75.
“Those guys have definitely put the tennis program on the map,” Siener said. “Not only some of the better athletes we have here at Webster, but also some of the better students you have on campus. That’s the impressive thing to me — how high they perform on the tennis court, but also how high they perform in the classroom.”
Villalba said the seniors’ talent and experience have been important to the improvement of the program. All of the seniors on the team have played three years of college tennis.
“Something that is going to be huge for us this year is the experience we all have,” Villalba said. “I know whenever you’re in a close game, you’re going to make the smart decision and you’re not going to be nervous or anything. I know sometimes the difference to winning or losing to someone is that one point.”
Of the seven seniors, two — Alarcon and Villalba — are from Ecuador. Cortez is from El Salvador and Rahman is of Bengali descent. Eaves, Sellmeyer and Thode are from the United States.
“Even their different playing styles really helps, too, because different people from different countries play different ways,” Cortez said. “These other guys are able to see different balls that you don’t normally see with American players. It does put diversity into all of us and in the team. It’s really nice to get a different mix of people — different culture — which really helps our culture on our team as well.”
Thode said every senior brings a unique style to the game.
“I know personally that the different styles that everyone’s brought to the court I’ve tried to learn from,” Thode said. “I tried to simulate Fran’s forehand somewhat. I come over to Ricky and ask him how he does his volleys (and) Diego how he does his forehand and topspin. It creates a good knowledgeable base for a good team going forward.”
This past fall, Rahman said he knew this was going to be a special season, so he wanted to do something to reunite the players after they were apart for the offseason. So, he came up with the idea of designing blue wristbands, which he gave to every member of the team. One side of the wristband shows “Los Gorloks,” while the other side shows “Raise The Banner.”
“I was thinking, ‘What could be something to create a type of community around us?’” Rahman said. “Not just us seven, but us 14 as a team, including the younger guys. Los Gorloks — … we kind of started that … because we have a little bit of Latin flavor on our team. We kind of embraced Los Gorloks as our team, our name. (The wristbands are) there as a reminder to work hard, play hard and one goal — raise the banner.”
The seniors knew before the start of the season that 2013 would be their last chance to make their mark on championship history. The players said Webster is playing its toughest schedule to date.
On Saturday, March 23, Webster played conference foe Westminster College (Mo.), and for the first time in school history, the Gorloks beat the Bluejays (see above for the full story).
“Every match this season has been a learning experience for the whole team,” Eaves said. “There have been battles where we started off pretty rough. We’ve had team meetings in the middle of the match just to let each other know, ‘Hey, we’ve got each other’s backs, and we’re going to see this thing go on to the end.’”
The toughest test for Webster has yet to come. The Gorloks will battle nationally-ranked No. 16 Washington University (Mo.) on Friday, March 29 at 4 p.m. at WashU.
“The schedule has just been awesome,” Cortez said. “The second leg of the season is going to be the hardest, so we’ll see what happens.”
The seven seniors have reversed the early struggles of the program, but they hope they build something that is sustainable after they leave.
“When we all first got here, I don’t know if that was necessarily the goal — build up something that we could all look back at — but I think that’s exactly what it’s become,” Rahman said. “It was almost a stroke of luck. We all are looking forward to saying, ‘Hey, we pioneered something bigger than all of us individuals to make something special.’”
—Editor’s note: Tennis player Josh Sellmeyer is also the copy chief & layout editor of The Journal.