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Jan. 18, 2006

The South Carolina men’s tennis team enters the 2006 dual match season with high hopes and expectations following a record-breaking campaign in 2005. The Gamecocks set or tied five school records last season on the way to the school’s sixth appearance in the NCAA Sweet Sixteen.

“We finished up 16th in the country last year and went to the Sweet Sixteen,” head coach Kent DeMars said. “We have most of the same team back, the top five players and another player in [sophomore Yevgeny Supeko] who theoretically should make more of an impact. Hopefully we’ll do better than we did last year and we’re starting off the year at No. 12, which is fair enough for now. Nationally, this may be the most wide open year in a decade, and I feel that we should be in the mix somewhere.”

Among the records set in 2005 for Carolina, were a school-record seven wins over Top 25 schools, six wins in Southeastern Conference play, a school-best fourth seed in the SEC Tournament. South Carolina extended its school-record of consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances to 12 and DeMars took sole possession of the all-time wins mark at Carolina with his 320th victory at the helm of the Gamecocks.

South Carolina returns five starters from that squad in Tom Eklund, Geraldo Knorr, Jaime Cuellar, Pedro Rodrigues and Dmitry Babenko, and replaces graduated senior Ben Atkinson with Texas A&M sophomore transfer Yevgeny Supeko. Sophomore walk-on Joseph Veeder has also joined the team. In addition, the Gamecocks return seniors Adam Adler and Kazuya Otani, while redshirt freshman Thomas Stoddard returns from a shoulder injury that held him out most of the 2005 season.

Leading the way for the Gamecocks in 2006 will be Eklund, a senior who used upsets of No. 5 Ken Skupski (LSU), No. 22 Nathan Thompson (Clemson) and No. 13 John Isner (Georgia) to propel himself to a school-record two SEC Player of the Week awards, a first-team all-SEC selection and an at-large bid to the NCAA Singles Championships. Eklund enters 2006 with a preseason ranking of No. 15. The senior from Hollviken, Sweden, is not only the team’s leader on the court but off it as well. He is the 2006 team captain for the Gamecocks.

“Tom is the number three player in the SEC coming back and we hope he can play at that level,” DeMars said of his captain. “It’s going to be a challenge, but I think he’ll win his share for sure. He’s obviously in the group of All-American candidates and I know he can earn that honor.”

Joining Eklund in their final seasons in a Gamecock uniform are seniors Adler, Otani and Knorr.

Knorr will certainly be a leader on the team as well. He led the team in singles wins two seasons ago, before struggling thorough injuries and illness in 2005.

“(Geraldo) was the one guy who was out of sync last year, everyone else was in sync. He’s past that and he’s already got a win over a ranked player and I think he can come back and play like he did when he was a sophomore. He’s more of a leader by example and I’m almost positive he’s going to have a good year. If we can get him going and get Yevgeny playing well we’re going to be in better shape than last season.”

The senior from Florianopolis, Brazil, may have struggled in singles, but he did not disappoint in doubles play. Knorr partnered with fellow Brazilian Pedro Rodrigues (Junior; Brasilia) and advanced to the NCAA Doubles Championships, becoming the first Gamecock tandem to make the 32-team field since Jerome Jourdon and Vladimir Pavicevic in 1998. The pair picked up four wins over Top 40 opponents in 2005, including shock upsets of previously unbeaten and third-ranked Ockie Oosthuizen and Ben Rogers of Tennessee (April 1) and the second-ranked and eventual NCAA National Champion pair of John Isner and Antonio Ruiz of Georgia (April 3). The Gamecock duo almost pulled a second upset off against UT’s top doubles team, but the doubles point was called moments before Rodrigues and Knorr would have clinched the upset at the SEC Quarterfinals.

Adler and Otani, both seniors, will be called upon to contribute in support roles in 2006, but provide valuable stability to the squad. Adler, a native of Myrtle Beach, S.C., posted a 10-3 record in singles matches in 2005, while Otani, a senior from Kobeshi, Japan, posted four wins a year ago.

“Adam’s the guy I’ve tried to set up to get on court because of his experience at Coastal and playing tournaments,” DeMars said. “Adam looks at himself as a starter and sees himself as being able to beat someone for their spot in the lineup. I think Kazuya realizes he is in a backup role, but we could have the flu and bam, he’s on the court. He enjoys tennis, the guys on the team like him and he’s fun to be around. He’s a very good role player. “

The juniors on the squad include Rodrigues and Babenko. Rodrigues, who was part of USC’s NCAA Doubles team with Knorr, also had an excellent season in singles, reaching the 20-win plateau for the first time in his career in 2005. The Brasilia, Brazil, native played most of the season at No. 2 singles, and filled in for Eklund at No. 1 on five occasions, going 3-2 at the top singles spot. Rodrigues clinched a pair of matches in 2005 for the Gamecocks (Wofford, Samford), bringing his career total of match-clinching victories to five in his two years at USC.

“The sky’s the limit for Pedro, and for that matter any of these guys,” DeMars explained. “Usually your biggest improvement is between your sophomore and junior years and he’s played a lot this fall. He could make that big jump and maybe be the best player we have. “

Babenko posted a successful first season in a Gamecock uniform, going 14-9 in singles with 12 doubles victories. The Moscow native, who won the 2004 NAIA Championship at Auburn-Montgomery, was near-automatic in the middle portion of the season, posting 10 wins in 13 singles matches.

“The biggest thing last year was to get Dima motivated properly,” DeMars said. “As a freshman, he was winning all his matches (at Auburn-Montgomery) at 50 percent or more. We had to get his mind going match after match after match. But I think that after a year of our schedule and regimen, he’ll be in great shape to go this spring.”

With no true freshmen on the squad, DeMars will turn to his three sophomores and one redshirt freshman to complete his 2006 side. The underclassmen are led by sophomores Jaime Cuellar and Yevgeny Supeko.

Cuellar, who led the Gamecocks in singles and doubles victories as a true freshman in 2005, returns for what some would expect to be a breakout year for the San Salvador, El Salvador native. Cuellar posted 53 total wins a year ago, the most for any Gamecock since Pavicevic in 1998 (58). He also showed tremendous poise and reliability as a freshman, clinching Carolina’s upsets of No. 9 LSU and No. 8 Georgia and coming from behind to win at No. 3 singles at No. 13 Oklahoma State, completing USC’s comeback from 3-0 down in the NCAA Regional.

“(Jaime’s) a delight to have. He’s such a great player and a great guy,” DeMars said. “If you could have a team of Jaime Cuellars, you’d be dynamite. He got us started last year after we lost at UNC and at Georgia Tech. We hadn’t had any significant wins going in against a Top 10 team in LSU. Somehow we hung in there, got three wins, it came down to him and he just blew this guy away. Before I even got to his court to settle him down, he said to me ‘I’m so excited, this is why I came here, everything’s on the line.’ There’s one thing that separates those guys that end up as great player. It’s because they have that electricity inside of them, something you can’t teach.”

Supeko, who transferred to USC following a year at Texas A&M, posted a 17-14 mark in singles for the Aggies. The sophomore, who graduated from New Braunfels High School in Texas, went 12-4 in all tournaments while in College Station and comes into the Carolina squad with high expectations of himself and his performances.

“His expectations are very high. When Yev graduates, he wants to play pro,” DeMars noted. “He’s big and strong and hits the ball extremely hard. He has to learn to do a few more things, but he’s been there, done that and played everywhere in the world. The sky is the limit for him as well, and if he can learn to control his emotions, he can be one of the guys that could take over the number one slot and no one on the team would say a word. His potential is enormous.”

The final two members of the 2006 Gamecocks are Veeder and Stoddard. Veeder, who hails from Charlotte, N.C., is a walk-on and will likely join Adler and Otani as back-ups providing stability to the starting six.

“Joseph has played in the junior nationals and such and with a bunch of guys going down in the fall we needed someone else on the team,” DeMars said. “He’s matured and gotten better over the last year. He’s a good player and is valuable to this team.”

Stoddard, who suffered a shoulder injury early in the 2005 dual match season, posted a combined 12-5 record in all matches before getting injured and being awarded a medical redshirt. The Greenwood, S.C. native was a four-time all-state selection in high school, and won back-to-back individual state titles while he was at Greenwood HS.

“It’s sort of unfortunate. He lost last year because he was injured, and needed this fall to get ready for the spring, but was still recovering,” DeMars said. “He’s got four years left and if this year is going to be a struggle, that’s okay. You’ve got to work your way back into match shape.”

With a loaded schedule that includes 14 teams that made the 2005 NCAA Tournament, five teams from the Sweet Sixteen, and two national semifinalists (Florida, Ole Miss), Carolina will face the best in college tennis.

“We came up with two tough wins in Oklahoma last year (NCAA Regional) to get to the championship site,” DeMars said. “We faced a Final Four team in Florida and played them hard. I think that with five of the six back from last year we have a great shot at another excellent year in the best tennis conference in the country.”

The 2006 season kicks off this weekend, Jan. 20-23, at the SEC Coaches Indoor Championship in Lexington, Ky. Carolina will play a pair of home matches on Saturday, Jan. 28, at the USC Indoor Fieldhouse, facing Troy at 10 a.m. and Wofford at 3 p.m.