(Posted March 16, 2007)

HUNTINGDON, Pa. - It has been an off-season of change for the Juniata College men\'s tennis team, but while many things have changed, many others have stayed the same. First-year head coach Beth Bleil takes over a team that lost five players from the squad that won 13 matches last season and reached the Commonwealth Conference postseason for the first time in program history. Despite those changes, the Eagles return three regulars from last season\'s lineup and have another two players with collegiate experience. Those returnees will be called on to play different roles this year, which mark even more changes. But the one other element that will stay the same is the team\'s expectations, which include making another run at a conference championship. After reaching the Commonwealth postseason for the first time a year ago, Juniata suffered a heartbreaking 4-3 loss to Albright College in the semifinals. Despite the losses, and lineup changes, the team believes it can find its way back to the postseason and try and go at least one step further than last year. \"We talked about goals at the start of the season, and the guys plainly stated that they want to get back to the postseason and progress from where they were last year,\" Bleil said. \"I know we lost some very good players from last year\'s team, but we\'ve also gained some good players, and I think that overall we are stronger this year.\" Leading that stronger lineup will be the three returning players who saw significant time last year. Sophomore Jonathan Skoner (Central Catholic/Pittsburgh) played at second singles a year ago and will likely move up to the number one position. Senior Brandon Long (Lebanon/Lebanon) and sophomore Ryan Navarro (Bishop Guilfoyle/Altoona) both played in the lower half of the singles ladder a season ago, and will now compete for the second and third spots. \"With nine players, our roster doesn\'t look that deep, but we have nine players who are definitely capable of having a spot in the singles lineup,\" Bleil said. \"We will need our players at the top to be consistent as they have the most experience, but each of the guys has the ability to win every time they go out.\" There will be plenty of choice to fill in the remaining singles positions. Junior Brian Sykes (Gateway Regional/Woodburry Heights, N.J.) held a regular spot in the lineup last year, and will be in the mix once again. Sophomores Casey Chew (Phoenixville/Phoenixville) and Aaron Rhodes (Huntingdon/Huntingdon) have both shown great improvement since their first collegiate season, and could battle for spots in the rotation. Freshmen Derek Dye (Beall/Frostburg, Md.) and Jarrad Silver (Walt Whitman/Bethesda, Md.) along with senior exchange student Jau Feixas (University of Barcelona/Barcelona, Spain) have all been impressive leading up to the season and will also be in the mix for spots in the singles lineup. Along with the depth of the singles lineup, Bleil believes one of the biggest strengths of this year\'s team will be improved play on the doubles courts. With a new scoring format that earns a point for each doubles victory, rather than a team just earning one total point for winning the doubles matches, the team has put an emphasis on having strong doubles tandems. \"Working on doubles has been a focus of ours during preseason, and it seems to be paying dividends,\" Bleil said. \"With the change in scoring, we feel like if we can win the majority of the doubles matches it will take the pressure off the singles competition and allow us to perform at our best level.\" The changes to the program do not stop with the coaching position, the altering of the singles lineup, or the increased emphasis on doubles play. The Eagles also put a much bigger focus on off-season preparation this year, which included practices during the fall season, and several weeks of indoor practice in the spring. The preparation for the season, along with the camaraderie of the group and its collective work ethic is what leads Bleil to believe the team\'s goals are not out of reach. \"This has been a really fun group of players to work with and they really have excellent team dynamics,\" Bleil said. \"They\'ve been really focused on what they want to accomplish, and there are doing everything they can to reach those goals.\" ###

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