The trial-by-fire approach was painful for two Rice tennis sophomores, but the light at the end of the tunnel paints a reason to retain optimism.
Rice tennis found themselves in uncharted water when they trotted out Campbell Salmon and Karol Paluch as their top two players last fall. Head coach Efe Ustendag was excited about the potential each of those sophomores possessed, but seeing it tested so early as the frontrunners of an injury-plagued roster was decidedly not according to plan.
“We were out of bodies,” Ustendag admitted when asked about his decision to turn to the emerging duo. Reigning C-USA Player of the Year Sumit Sarkar was far from being 100 percent. Several other players were knocked up here and there. The sum total of the various injuries was a roster stretch thin early in the year.
Salmon and Paluch were asked to lead the way. They struggled early. They were noticeably affected by the jump in the level of competition they faced on a weekly basis. The Owls had planned to hit the duo sixth and seventh in the order, not first and second. Bruised but not beaten, the sophomores learned from the experience.
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Ustendag knew he was playing the long game. “I think this is really going to set them up well for the rest of their careers,” he said, seeing the good in a challenging situation.
Those two won’t be left alone to lead the way. Rice loses just one player, senior Eric Rutledge, from their starting rotation next season. They also add incoming freshman Trinity Grear and should have a more experienced version of returning sophomore Wes Barnett.
Next year’s upperclassmen-laden roster will have seen a thing or two in their college playing days. The adversity wasn’t comfortable in the moment, but the far-reaching impact could be very positive.