The balls in the Vulcans’ court again at West Regional

  • Wu Chun-En and the UH-Hilo Vulcans hope more fist pumps are in store at the West Regional in Arizona, where a spot in the NCAA championships is up for grabs.

The words Hilo and tennis don’t coexist without a fair amount of patience, which is something Wu Chun-En of Taiwan learned all to well as a freshman in 2018.

With one practice after another squashed by rain, an exasperated Wu was about ready to find a contractor to put a roof over UH-Hilo’s tennis courts.

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“After my first year, I was like please do something,” Wu said.

The best changes come from within, and in the end it didn’t require all that much patience at all from Wu and the PacWest champion Vulcans, who are the top seed in Surprise, Ariz., for their third consecutive trip to the West Regional.

“My last year, obviously, I feel like it’s toward the end,” Wu said. “I cherish the moment more than before. I’m happier on the court and enjoy tennis more than two years ago.”

Then, pointing to ace Martin Soukal waiting nearby outside the campus courts, Wu said, “That dude helps a lot.”

Soukal was the big man on campus in the Vuls’ upset win – on paper, anyway – against Azusa Pacific in the PacWest final in Surprise on April 24, using a searing serve to take out the previously unbeaten Jakob Schnaitter 6-3, 6-3.

“It helps me when I play someone ranked higher than me,” Soukal said. ‘There is less pressure on me. I know I have nothing to lose. I like it.”

Carrying a combined 5-2 record against the other three teams at the regional, UHH (8-2) takes on Concordia (8-7) on Friday. Azusa Pacific and Hawaii Prep vie for the other spot in Saturday’s championship match, which is a winner-take-all to advance to the NCAA championships, May 18-20 in Surprise. The Vulcans’ six match winning streak includes a 4-2 victory against Concordia on March 8 that was spurred by the back end of its lineup – singles victories by Nos. 3-5 players by Luca Checchia, Wu and Santiago Di Loreto, and doubles wins by No. 2 Checchia/Di Loreto and No. 3 Wu/Joshua Liu.

“At this stage, anything can happen,” coach Kallen Mizuguchi.

He expressed the same sentiment before the PacWest championships, and he was proven right when the Vulcans overcame injuries to bring home their first tennis title and the school’s first since 2014.

“Rankings, reputations, records are all out the door,” Mizuguchi said. “There are not going to be too many surprises. Whoever is going to be on that day is likely going to win.”

In the PacWest semifinals, Alessio Demichelis had to default his No. 2 match because of a back injury, but he came back a day later and gutted out a three-set win against an opponent who had routed him during the regular season.

“(Our) health could better, but everyone is battling injuries,” Mizuguchi said. “It’s not just our team. No one is 100%.”

The former Waiakea standout – he teamed with Kaito Mizutani to win the 2010 HHSAA doubles championship – took the reins of the Vuls after Tina McDermott revived the program. In his first season in 2019, he promptly led UHH to the national semifinals.

“We were lucky to get Kallen” said Soukal, who was recruited out the Czech Republic by McDermott. “Kallen is really a good coach, and right now we’re lucky to have (assistant) Vaclav (Slezak).”

“There have been some upgrades.”

One of nine foreign players on roster that lists 10, Soukal starting playing tennis with his grandfather when he got tired of playing soccer.

“I realized I had a better chance to be good at tennis,” he said.

Wu and Checchia are the other two holdovers from the McDermott era, and Mizuguchi said he’s steadily been able to build his recruiting chops after a slow start his first season.

“I got guys that are good tennis players, but also good people,” Mizuguchi said. “I’m just fortunate to have good people, it makes a huge difference.”

Especially when it comes to in doubles play, Wu said.

Matches start with three doubles contests, and the first team to win two get an important point heading to the six singles matches.

“If you love your teammate, you know them better and you work together,” Wu said. “If you don’t like each other, you don’t play great doubles.

“I think the team activities have been important for us this year.”

He’s set to graduate with a degree in accounting, and he’s not done with the rain yet. Wu is set to attend Seattle University to get his masters.

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”It’s been a great experience,” he said, despite the rain.

“It’s hit and miss here and a little bit harder to love tennis for me.”

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