The University of Alberta Golden Bears and Pandas tennis teams are in Montreal this weekend for the annual Tennis Canada University and College National Tennis Championship. And, after winning bronze in 2010 and silver last year, the U of A is ready to come back with the gold in 2012.
Now in its fourth year with the co-ed format, which sees singles and doubles play rolled into one overall school score, the tournament has yet to have a new winner, as the University of Montreal Carabins come into the this year’s tournament as three-time defending championships.
For U of A tennis leader and Pandas’ coach Russ Sluchinski, the time for a new champion might be now, and he’s looking at his young and skilled group to dethrone Montreal.
“We’d like to upgrade to gold this year,” said Sluchinski. “I think we’re a contender. I know we have the talent to win, and although the competition is stiff, I like our chances. Traditionally, if we’ve started well, we’ve tended to build on that throughout the weekend and I think that will be the case this time too,” added the long-time U of A coach.
While both the U of A tennis program is young, it is also deeper in skill than it has been in the past. Sophomores Marko Laschuk (Science) and Gergely Sajdik (Engineering) will be counted on for leadership as well as results on the court, as will fourth-year Katherine Hesje (Business) and third-year Samantha Jang-Stewart (Medicine and Denistry).
“We definitely have improved our talent, and we’ve improved our talent with a younger group of athletes as well which bodes really well for our depth and our future,” noted Sluchinski. “The veteran players that have been at this tournament before and had success, I’m really looking to them to be a calming influence to our athletes that haven’t been here before. We have the talent, but its players like Marko, Gergely, and Samantha that need to provide the younger players a calming and positive influence to draw upon.”
A sentiment echoed by Edmontonian and St. Francis Xavier high school graduate Marko Laschuk.
“Even though we’re a younger team this year, our athletes have all competed at a high level, so they have that big match experience and that experience of closing out a match when the pressure is on. From my perspective, what I can do to help as someone who’s competed at this tournament before, is just by being a strong leader before, during and after matches, and really work to keep the positivity up, and help everyone out as much as possible,” Laschuk finished.
“Coming into this year’s tournament, I know our whole team has been training really hard and pushing to be better,” Laschuk continued, “and I think we’re all feeling pretty good heading to Montreal to compete for this championship.”
Aside from the talented veterans that make-up both the Golden Bears and Pandas, the program will also look to skilled first-year sisters Britt and Erika Voaklander for results on the court, as well as rookie Golden Bear Tobiasz Strozyk.
The two sisters, who are native Edmontonians and both in the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation, are big keys to the Pandas successes this weekend. Britt has already been voted the Pandas’ MVP for this season, while Erika was deemed the rookie of the year.
“I’m really excited to go there, but a bit nervous as well,” noted Britt. “Everyone has been playing really well this year, so we’re feeling good going into the tournament. Montreal is very strong, but I think we have what it takes; I think the Pandas’ are a stronger team this year just because of how much more we’ve trained,” she added.
This season’s preparation, as well as a hunger to win, was also pointed out by Erika.
“I think we’ve prepared really well for this tournament. We’ve trained really well this year, we’ve played a lot together as a group, and honestly we’re sick of finishing second,” said Erika. “I think our depth this year is much stronger than in the past and I think that will really help us at this tournament,” she concluded.
In past tournaments, the U of A has always fared well on the men’s side, but struggled against Montreal’s dominant women’s team. But an upgrade in skill, and improvement in the doubles game, should help level the playing field. Having previously played two of three teams at the Green and Gold Invitational earlier this year should also help the relatively young U of A team as well.
“The Golden Bears are really strong, one of the best men’s teams in Canada,” said Sluchinski. “One the women’s side, Montreal is a very deep and experienced group comprised of all senior athletes. We had a great opportunity to play the Montreal women in Edmonton during the Green and Gold Invitational this year, and now the Pandas know what to expect from Montreal, so they won’t be sort of awestruck against them this weekend.”
“We’ve already played Montreal and UBC this year,” noted Erika, “so we know what we need to do against those teams in order to be successful.”
As always in national championship tournament, a strong start is a necessity. The U of A will open against Western Canadian rival UBC on Friday, before facing Western Ontario University on Saturday, and then finish the tournament against in a highly anticipated match-up against Montreal on Sunday.
“We have to get off to a quick start against UBC. If we start well against in our first match, I think we’ll play well for the rest of the tournament as well,” added Sluchinski.