October 20, 2020

The Sporting Insider: ‘SLIAC still without men’s tennis AQ’

The Sporting Insider is a biweekly column by Journal copy chief & layout editor Josh Sellmeyer.

St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference men’s tennis has been dominated by two teams and two teams only — Principia College (Ill.) and Westminster College (Mo.).

The Principia Panthers won nine consecutive SLIAC tournament championships from 1991-99 and have collected 11 SLIAC tourney titles overall. The Westminster Bluejays captured five straight SLIAC tournament championships from 2000-04 and six straight from 2006-11. Combined, Principia and Westminster have won 22 SLIAC championships. The rest of the SLIAC? Zilch.

But the Panthers’ and Bluejays’ reign of dominance could come to an end this year. The Webster University men’s tennis team is 13-2 overall and 3-0 in SLIAC play, which includes a 5-4 win over Westminster on March 23. That victory was the Gorloks’ first-ever win over the Bluejays. Webster will take on Principia on April 11, and the SLIAC tournament will be played April 26-27.

I’m a member of the Webster men’s tennis team. My teammates and I strongly believe this will finally be the year we break through and win that elusive SLIAC tournament championship.

This year’s team is unquestionably the best in the history of the Webster men’s tennis program. From Feb. 9 to March 28, the Gorloks won a program-high 13 matches in a row, including six 9-0 sweeps. Not only that, the Gorloks’ 13 victories so far in 2013 are more than any Webster team compiled during a single season from 1985-2010. From 1997-2007, the Webster men’s tennis program won 12 matches … total.

A SLIAC regular-season championship and a SLIAC tournament championship would be the perfect parting gift for Webster’s seven seniors. Followed by, of course, the program’s first trip to the NCAA Division-III national tournament.

Except that last part won’t be possible. For Webster or for whichever team goes on to win the SLIAC tournament.

Only six SLIAC schools sponsor men’s tennis — Webster, Principia, Westminster, Greenville College (Ill.), Fontbonne University and Eureka College (Ill.). For their schools to be eligible to earn automatic qualification (AQ) to the NCAA tournament, conferences must have seven institutions sponsor a given sport. That goes for men’s tennis and all the other sports the NCAA gives out AQs for.

The SLIAC lost its men’s tennis AQ when Maryville University (Mo.) bolted for NCAA Division-II affiliation in 2009. In 2010 and 2011, SLIAC champ Westminster still played in the national tournament due to the NCAA’s two-year grace period, which comes into effect after conferences drop below seven members. Principia did not play another match after it secured the 2012 SLIAC tournament title.

I had the honor of competing in two national tournaments as a member of the Webster men’s soccer team. Even though we lost our first-round games in both 2009 and 2012, there was no greater feeling than playing on the biggest stage in D-III sports. It’s something I’ll treasure for the rest of my life.

It sucks that the Principia men’s tennis team wasn’t able to experience that last year, and the 2013 SLIAC champ won’t be able to experience it, either.

Worse, the SLIAC won’t get its men’s tennis AQ back until the 2019 season — at the earliest — barring any setbacks. SLIAC Commissioner Will Wolper said conference newcomer Iowa Wesleyan College has agreed to add a men’s tennis program by the 2015-16 academic year. But the school won’t be a full NCAA member until 2016-17, which means the NCAA’s mandated two-year waiting period won’t kick in until then.

Spalding University (Ky.) has considered adding tennis teams, but Wolper said the school won’t do so until it’s able to make the tennis coaching position a full-time gig.

Blackburn College (Ill.) has a women’s tennis team and courts on campus. But Wolper said the high schools Blackburn typically recruits from don’t have boys’ tennis teams, so Blackburn felt supporting a men’s tennis team would be too difficult an endeavor. Wolper said MacMurray College (Ill.) has the same problem as Blackburn.

MacMurray sponsored a SLIAC men’s tennis team from 1991-2003, but infamously became the first D-III program to receive the NCAA’s dreaded death penalty in 2005. MacMurray’s men’s tennis program was banned from competing for two years, and the college has not sponsored a men’s tennis team since.

Wolper said getting the SLIAC men’s tennis AQ back is “something that’s still on our radar — we’re still making efforts for it. We feel terrible for the student athletes that we’re not able to provide them that opportunity. We’re hoping that the opportunity does present itself here, sooner rather than later.”

The one positive to the SLIAC lacking a men’s tennis AQ is it makes the conference tournament that much more imperative to win. Teams know their season will end one way or another in the SLIAC tournament, so every point, game and set is played with high intensity and urgency.

But I hope Iowa Wesleyan does come through with its plan to add a men’s tennis team. Winning a SLIAC title just can’t be the same when you know you won’t get an opportunity to play in the national tournament. It’s a shame members of the 2013-18 SLIAC champion teams will have to miss out on perhaps the greatest aspect of being NCAA student athletes.

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