Feb. 15, 2006
If the tennis world has learned anything about the USC men's tennis program and head coach Peter Smith, it's that the Trojans don't shy away from tough competition.
Exhibit A: USC's 2006 season-opening match with top-ranked Virginia.
Exhibit B: A midseason showdown with 2005 runner-up Baylor.
Exhibit C: Two clashes with defending NCAA champion UCLA.
It wasn't too long ago that USC enjoyed that same No. 1 ranking and an NCAA crown. This season, the Trojans come in ranked No. 20 -- but that top slot certainly is not far out of reach.
USC head men's tennis coach Peter Smith has seen a little bit of everything in his three seasons at Troy. His first two years at the helm saw the Trojans jump from their worst season to a share of the Pac-10 title and a No. 4 national ranking. Last season -- Smith's third at USC -- saw the Trojans power back to the NCAA Tournament once more for their eighth consecutive appearance in the postseason action. Now, Smith has his troops poised yet again for a powerful run through the competitive Pac-10 and beyond. And what better way to begin a trip to the top than against the nation's No. 1 squad?
"My goal always is to play the toughest opponents we can," Smith said. "When you're USC, people want to play you. If you want to beat the best, you have to play against the best, so we want to get our competition as high as possible. Our goal is to win the NCAA championship, so we have to see what's out there."
While the clash with the Cavaliers will be the first eyeful of dual-match action for USC's four newcomers, the Trojans have plenty of experienced players cued up for the coming 2006 competition -- which will also include a pair of runs at the defending national champion and fellow Pac-10 power UCLA, as well as a shot at last year's NCAA runner-up, Baylor.
USC returns nine players from last year's roster, including a newly activated senior Jeff Kazarian, who was sidelined by injury for the 2005 season but who adds a powerful punch to the Trojan's competitive edge on the court.
"When he's healthy he can be a total force for our team," Smith said of Kazarian. "I think the guys on the team know how good a player he is, especially in doubles, where he went undefeated last year."
Kazarian is joined by fellow seniors Aaron Badart and Brian Wright for their final season as Trojans, helping to lead Smith's squadron of 13 players. The senior threesome will have four newcomers to bring into the Trojan program. Junior transfer Garrett Snyder left Texas to begin his first season at Troy along with freshmen Carlos Salmon and Chong Wang and another newcomer to the roster, sophomore Nathan Stadler.
The influx of talent, along with USC's core of returning strength, are designed to get the Trojans back to a ninth straight NCAA Tournament. USC was ousted in the second round of NCAA play last season, finishing up the year at 12-13 overall after a fifth-place finish in the Pac-10.
This year, USC has all the ammo it needs to improve on last year's mark. In addition to Kazarian's return to the Trojan ladder, USC has junior All-American Jamil Al-Agba back in line for 2006. As a sophomore, Al-Agba wound down the year ranked No. 20 in singles, and managed to launch himself to No. 7 in the 2006 preseason rankings. A stress fracture in his left leg sidelined him for the fall, but the success Al-Agba built up last season raised the bar for this year's Trojan squad. Fellow Trojans Kaes Van't Hof and Adam Loucks also are poised to launch themselves to the top of the USC ladder, as both players posted strong 2005 seasons and are back to get the Trojans set up for a successful 2006.
"If we have everyone healthy, we're a top 10 team playing the top teams in the country," Smith said. "We have guys that are really developing like Kaes and Adam. Those guys got a lot of experience last year, especially Kaes showed he can come up big in some big matches. He's a big dual match player; he wants pressure and likes pressure. Adam Loucks' potential is out of this world. He's shown me he's ready to jump to the next level."
The Trojan talent pool doesn't stop there. Not by a long shot. Dejan Cvetkovic comes out of the gates as a sophomore for his first season of competition at USC, and the Canadian-born player is lined up to be a key element in USC's dual match battles.
"He has All-American talent," Smith said of Cvetkovic. "He can beat any player in the country when he's feeling comfortable on the court."
When it comes to quality time on the court, Whit Livingston has had the opportunity to see plenty of action in the past seasons. Now in his junior season for USC, Livingston is another player who Smith is looking to for depth in the Trojans' dual matches.
"Whit's a guy who has taken his opportunities and really made the most of them," Smith said of Livingston. "He's earned the respect of his teammates."
USC's incoming powers include freshman Wang and junior transfer Snyder. They are expected to be well in the mix on the doubles and singles scene, and carry the ability to carve out solid individual futures at USC as well.
"Garrett has been an invaluable asset to the team," Smith said of Snyder. "He's really versatile. He's proven he's an incredible doubles player and he can do so many different things with his game.
"Chong was a top-10 junior in the country got some big-time potential and we're expecting big things from him."
Wang -- and his teammates -- will enjoy another quick induction into tough competition this season. After Virginia, a competitive Pac-10 season lies in wait. But if anything has been established in years of success, the Trojans are steeled and armed for another run to the top.
"The Pac-10 teams are all going to be very, very good," Smith said. "But I feel very confident."