FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – The Northern Arizona men's tennis team returns to the court off a week hiatus for a three-match road trip starting Friday in Salt Lake City, Utah against the University of Utah. The Lumberjacks (2-3 overall, 1-0 Big Sky) will then follow that up with a pair of Big Sky conference matches at Weber State and Idaho State on Saturday and Sunday to conclude the weekend.
Leading the Lumberjacks into the weekend will be junior Shaun Waters. While the team has experienced its share of ups and downs in the early portion of the spring season, Waters has been solid of late, winning four straight singles matches at No. 4 after a season-opening loss at previously ranked No. 55 Arizona, and currently sports the top singles record on the team at 4-1.
"I don't think Shaun will be playing at No. 4 singles much longer," said assistant coach Joseph Heckley. "He has so much talent. He knows where to be on the court, where to hit the ball and he doesn't let anything bother him. He's always level-headed, cool, calm and collected. I think that's what sets him apart. Shaun is just a solid player all the way around and a great teammate."
The Melbourne, Australia native is in his first season at NAU after spending his first two years playing an integral role at Middle Tennessee State. In his two seasons there, he notched 16 singles wins and 18 doubles wins and helped the Blue Raiders to a NCAA Championship appearance last season.
Although he played primarily at No. 1 singles as a sophomore, he won the decisive match at No. 2 against South Alabama with the overall match score tied at 3-3 to clinch the team's Sun Belt conference championship last season. It is that championship experience that he hopes to bring to the Lumberjacks, who have not won the Big Sky since 1997.
"It helped me a lot with my own tennis playing in that last match," Waters said. "I hope I can bring some of that experience to some of these guys and let them know what it's all about and what it takes to win."
Waters is also ready for whatever role director of tennis Kim Bruno and Heckley have for him, whether it's staying at No. 4 or moving up in the lineup.
"I think playing at No. 1 at my old school, I definitely think I have the ability," Waters said. "We'll see how it goes this weekend. I think I'm playing No. 3 to start and hopefully I can get a good win there and carry that on. It's all about being mentally tough in the moment."
Regardless of where Waters plays in the lineup this weekend, the Lumberjacks hope to show their improvements made during their week off from competition. NAU is coming off a tough 6-1 loss to Air Force in their last match, but also earned their first conference victory of the season the day before against Northern Colorado.
It won't be an easy weekend slate beginning with Utah. The Utes are 5-2 this season and split a pair of matches last weekend against nationally ranked opponents in Las Vegas, Nev. They upset No. 57 UNLV, 5-2, on their home court, but dropped a 5-2 decision to No. 49 Santa Clara a day later. The Utes are 4-1 on their home court this season, with all four victories coming against Big Sky opponents. Dmytro Mamedov and Devin Lane have led the Utes so far this year, both compiling a 6-1 record in singles play.
Weber State is 1-4 this season and dropped their first conference match of the season last week to Sacramento State. Although the Wildcats have struggled this season, they are led by their No. 1 doubles pair of Oliver Good and Simon Unger, who are 4-1 this season and was ranked No. 4 in the Mountain Region to begin the season.
Idaho State is coming off a 4-1 home loss to Nevada last weekend and is 2-7 this season. However, their 1-1 record in conference play currently puts the Bengals in fourth place in the Big Sky standings. Their freshman Krzyzstof Stempien is among the conference leaders with five singles wins and is currently the lone Bengal with a winning record in singles play (5-4).
"Air Force was a tough loss but it showed us what we need to work on," Heckley said. "We've taken care of our weaknesses and it's prepared us for three tough matches this weekend. I think we've emphasized our doubles play because that's where we need to start getting points and competing. It's been a good two weeks of practice and we've got a good non-conference match against Utah and then two conference matches coming up."
The Lumberjacks' three-match road weekend kicks off at 5 p.m. against Utah at the Eccles Tennis Center on Friday.