HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. — A mild September morning is the backdrop for the NKU men’s tennis team as they prepare for the start of the fall season.
Norse senior Jody Maginley, the lone senior on the squad, makes his way to the courts. He has rackets in one hand, soccer ball in the other.
He and the rest of his teammates prepare to embark on a new season in a new league. Rather than being the most northern school in a southern league, NKU will be the most southern school in the new Horizon League.
While the competition is still tough, this change in geography suits Head Coach Brian Nester just fine.
“It’s going to help a lot,” Nester said. “Now we’re the southernmost school in the conference. While we enjoyed our Florida trips — more social than the tennis part — now schools are going to be coming down here. Most likely, our home matches are going to be outside where they’re probably used to playing inside”
Nester noted that the Norse would be the last school to get outside in the spring in the Atlantic Sun. Now, NKU will be one of the first, which is a big advantage.
“That’s a real advantage, because you’re measured from the entire body of your season, but if you really want and feel you have the capabilities of making the conference tournament, you’re going to play outside at that point. The sooner you’re outside, you’re going to be sharper,” Nester said.
While the conference move benefits NKU by getting them outside sooner, it doesn’t mean there isn’t tough competition awaiting in its new league.
“As we move into the Horizon League, the competition is every bit as good, but it’s a northern-type of tennis,” Nester said. “There are more indoor players, more aggressive, less of the grindy, hit 45 to 60 balls per point, so I think it’s to our advantage. We want to be steady, but with the personnel on the squad, I think we’re going to match up much better.”
Nester expects his team to have large goals heading into the new season.
“I’m hoping that the players have a very high expectation for going into the Horizon League,” Nester said. “We got beat up pretty bad in the Atlantic Sun. We competed, but part of it is physically we weren’t quite as good, but also mentally we weren’t quite as good.
“Is it the chicken or the egg? You need some success to believe a little more.”
Maginley, who played in the top half of the lineup for the Norse last year, will look to draw on professional-level experience gained over the summer.
The Association of Tennis Professionals, or ATP, is the world men’s professional tennis tour. While even casual tennis fans are familiar with the top-level events, there is a second level of play for up-and-coming players.
Maginley played in a Futures event this summer. In the Mexico F8 Futures, he paired with John Lamble to advance all the way to the final of the doubles tournament. They lost in the final, but Maginley got both ranking points and invaluable experience.
“Coach talked about how physical you have to be to play college tennis,” Maginley said. “But it’s a completely different level when you go to the professional leagues. It took a solid two weeks for me to get used to the pace — the speed of their balls, how consistent they are, just the way they think. The mentality is completely different.”
Maginley hopes the experience can help him during the upcoming season.
“A few of those matches I played in Mexico in doubles reminded me of a few of the matches I played in college here last year,” Maginley said. “It just proved to me, there are very small parts of the game you can improve on to pick up good wins.
“We lost a lot of close matches last year. If I was doing some of the things I was doing in Mexico last year in doubles, I would have picked up some more wins.”
NKU tennis coach Brian Nester said the result would benefit Maginley in more ways than one.
“For one, he got 10 ATP points, which puts him on the computer,” Nester said. “He’s top 1,500 in the world now. But that experience, I think, makes him stand a little taller. It’s one more thing that you look for that you’ve been there before.
“He touched upon making the little adjustments. Those are the things that, as a coach, sometimes you point some things out, but sometimes they have to live and learn. I’m very optimistic that Jody is going to have an outstanding senior year because he’s always been close.”
Also expected at the top of the lineup is junior Mate Virag. A native of Szentes, Hungary, Virag played first singles and doubles for NKU last season.
Virag mentioned the league change and improved depth as points of optimism going into the fall season.
“I think the team is better this year,” Virag said. “We have two transfers that came in and a freshman. I think they’ll all be good additions. I think we’ll be better, but it’s a tough conference.”
Virag should benefit from the increased indoor play with his aggressive style.
“I’m definitely an offensive player,” said Virag. “I would describe it as really flat and really fast. I try to mix it up sometimes. I try to use my touch that I have.
“Indoors is a lot faster. The courts are a lot faster. Points are shorter, so it’s usually better for me to play indoors.”
Playing at the top of the lineup is never easy in college tennis. Even teams that are not strong top to bottom usually have a strong player anchoring the top of the lineup. Virag says he relies on his teammates to help him get over a tough loss.
“My teammates help a lot,” Virag said. “If we win the (team) match and I lose my match, I don’t care. It’s all about the team. I’d take that over me winning my match and the team losing the match.”
The men’s fall season begins Friday at the Lindner Family Tennis Center in Mason, Ohio at the Western and Southern Invitational. Despite the abbreviated nature of the fall schedule, Nester believes it is no less important than the spring.
“The easy thing for me to say would be the fall is kind of a warmup,” Nester said. “But I actually do not believe it is. We have our tournament (this) weekend which is going to have outstanding competition. Then we have a tournament here at Northern Kentucky University October 2nd through 4th where, in most cases, guys on the team end up playing each other.
“It’s a challenge match as much as any challenge match could be. The top two are guaranteed of going to the regional, so they know they have to put it on the line.”
Blaine Carr, freshman
Court Clark, redshirt junior
Lukas Clemens, junior
Adrian Isache, junior
Nick Lang, junior
Jody Maginley, senior
Mate Virag, junior
Friday, Saturday at Western and Southern Invitational, Mason, Ohio
October 2-4, NKU Open, HOME
October 14-18, ITA Ohio Valley Regional, Knoxville, Tenn.