Last year, the UH-Hilo men’s tennis team produced a landmark season with a first-round loss at the NCAA Division II championships, a shocking achievement considering Hawaii Pacific is seen as the state’s preeminent program.
The Sharks captured the national title in 2016 and finished runner-up in 2000, ’01, ’03, ’14, and ’15. Hendrik Bode has been at HPU since 2012, so the winning culture won’t drift off into the sunset anytime soon.
His wife is Lauren Conching, the HPU women’s coach. Her team has reached the NCAA championships the last seven years. Her team is ranked 10th and looks like a good bet to reach the NCAAs again.
Her husband’s team is ranked No. 6 and one point was No. 3 in the country. A week ago, the Vulcans, who are 12th, took down the Sharks 4-2 on Oahu, a major stroke of tide-turning when looking back at history.
“Winning at HPU gave us confidence and belief,” first-year interim coach Kallen Mizuguchi said. “We’re competitive, and we’re here to win.”
UHH beat HPU twice in 2018. Previous to that, it’s been a Shark-infested world with a 14-0 record dating back to 2011. During that stretch, HPU posted eight shutouts.
Under Mizuguchi, the Vulcans are playing their best brand of tennis and are the height of their powers. There’s no better time than now to seriously chase a national title.
UHH is not exactly a recruiting destination point for tennis out in the middle of the Pacific. That’s been HPU.
The Vulcans (10-3) next play in the PacWest championships, Wednesday-Saturday in Surprise, Ariz., where they’ll likely meet the Sharks (12-4).
Last year, under former coach Tina McDermott, the Vulcans reached the NCAAs through a side door. They lost to Azusa Pacific for the PacWest title and received a bid to the West Regional.
UHH beat Point Loma and then fell to the University of Indianapolis 5-3 in the round of 16 at the NCAA championships.
The reason for UHH’s sense of urgency is that the best player is senior Vaclav Slezak, from the Czech Republic, who’s No. 6 in singles with a 10-3 record. He’s 9-3 in doubles.
More likely than not, Slezak will automatically bank two wins. UHH’s No. 2 player Alessandro Giuliato, a sophomore from Italy, is 11-0 in singles and 8-3 in doubles. When he’s paired with Slezak, they’re 9-3, a 75 percent winning percentage.
There are more important things than great odds at winning. Mizuguchi grew up playing under former Vulcans Kula Oda and Randy Kunimoto, and he understands team chemistry is just as powerful as a rocket serve.
“It doesn’t happen all the time. There are solid teams out there, too,” Mizuguchi said. “We got lucky. We have good tennis players. But even better, we’ve got great people and a great environment to be around.
“We definitely have good players. We have chemistry because we’re a close team. Our players are far from home and from different countries. We’re like their second family.”
Mizuguchi described his two horses with different styles of play.
“Vaclav is a good, aggressive player. He doesn’t give up and works hard. He’s got a lot of grit and determination,” he said. “Alessandro is very crafty. He gets a lot of balls in play and knows the court very well. He’s got court awareness and is very difficult to play against.
“Overall, everyone is doing their part and pulling their weight. It’s been positive.”
Back in March, UHH played No. 1 Barry, from Florida, on the road and got crushed 6-1. The only good news was Giuliato drilled Carlos Gomez 6-3, 6-2. Gomez was No. 6 in the ITA national ranking last fall. The other Vuls lost in straight sets.
The UHH women’s program has a long track record of losing. But if anyone can recruit one of Hilo’s homegrown talents to turn the team around that would be Mizuguchi, who knows the local kids inside and out as a coach with Kunimoto’s tennis program.
“They qualified for the PacWest,” he said. “Like the men, they’re positive and working hard. They’re enjoying themselves on and off the court. They’re definitely confident they could play better.”
Mizuguchi, a former Vulcan, has had a different perspective as a coach.
“I’m enjoying it. It’s definitely a challenge. It was a lot easier as a player,” he said. “But it’s been rewarding enough, teaching them things. They’re teaching me a lot of things, getting to know each and every one of them. It’s been a good experience.”