The Idaho State men’s tennis team is off to one of its best starts in school history in large part to the strong play and leadership of seniors Nate Gross and Charles Norman. The team’s top doubles pair has thus far led the Bengals to an undefeated Big Sky Conference record of five wins and a 9-3 overall record.
Gross, from Sebastopol, Calif., has been with the program since his freshman year in 2009. In his first year the team went 1-12 overall. This year, the 9-3 overall and 5-0 conference play start is ISU’s best since the 2005-06 season. Gross has a 6-3 singles record, 3-1 in conference. He is excited for the way he and the Bengals have played so far this season.
“It is great,” he said. “I have been here since a freshman so I have seen the whole team just turn around from us being terrible to us being pretty powerful in conference.”
The biggest change that Gross has seen with the team over the years has been their attitude.
“My freshman and sophomore year we didn’t have the belief that we could win,” he explained, “especially after the first few matches when we were getting destroyed by other teams. Now there is a lot more motivation and expectation from us every day.”
Norman, who hails from Durban, South Africa, is a second-year transfer senior and has too seen huge changes in the team and for himself this season. His 6-4 singles record is an improvement from his 1-18 singles record from last season.
“I have only been here a year since my junior year, but we have a new team all around and have new good players,” he said. “We have all taken that extra step. Last year I was working on the new game plan, coming to the net a lot more. I was not too comfortable with it at first. This season now I have adjusted and have a lot more confidence.”
The Bengals defeated Big Sky opponents Southern Utah 7-0 on March 28 to stay perfect in the conference. The weekend prior the men went 3-1 in the Las Vegas Tournament, defeated Southern Utah again as well as non-conference foes Western New Mexico University and Youngstown State University. The host team, No.71 UNLV, defeated them 7-0.
The team’s biggest win so far in this season came against the conference powerhouse and defending conference champions Sacramento State on March 17. Gross and Norman took down Sacramento State’s top duo of Aliaksandr Malko and Marek Marksoo, ranked 80 in the nation, 9-7 to ignite the upset. Together they are 6-3 in doubles play, 1-0 against nationally ranked opponents.
Norman was confident he and Gross would be able to lead the team to victory.
“I expected us to win at first, we have a good team overall. If a couple of us did well we would have a chance to win. After we won that doubles match I realized that we could beat them.”
“It was surreal,” Gross added. “The day after I checked the score again to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.”
That win, Gross said, showed that Sacramento State would not dominate the conference as in years past.
“The win shows them there are other team that can compete with them. In the past they haven’t had much trouble in conference.”
Gross complimented Norman for being one of the best double’s partners he has ever had. He says each of their playing styles allows them to mesh well together. Norman’s technical ability mixed with Gross’ aggressive play make them a formidable pair.
“Charles is a lot more experienced in doubles than any partner that I’ve had in the past. That brings me up a level, too.”
Gross and Norman have taken it upon themselves to make the most of their last year as Bengal tennis players. They have devoted several hours a week in the weight room this season and have seen it pay off in their play.
“Nate and I talked about doing this since last year because we wanted to get the most out of this season,” Norman said. “I have needed a lot of ice because of it, so that’s good.”
Gross added that he and Norman’s work in the weight room and on the court is their style of leadership for their team. While not giving many pep talks, Gross and Norman agree that they lead by example.
“The younger guys look up to us, I think,” Gross said. “They have come in with a great attitude and it has really helped us all out.”
He continued to praise the younger players on the team and their winning attitude.
“Having five new guys come last year and two this year, none of them know what it’s like to have a losing season. They are wanting and expecting to win.”
The last time the Bengals won the Big Sky title was in 1990. Gross and Norman are confident that they have the abilities to take the crown.
“I definitely think we can, especially the regular season title,” said Gross. “It is going to come down to who plays better in the conference tournament in Sacramento.”
“We are all motivated and we have a common goal that we can achieve it,” Norman said.
Bengal tennis will look to continue its perfect Big Sky Conference record next week. They defeated Northern Arizona Sunday, March 31. The Bengals will continue their hot streak as they host North Dakota on April 12 and Northern Colorado on April 13.