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'M' grows up on the court: Wolverines or Kits?

BY MAX HEILBRUNN
Daily Sports Writer
Published February 2, 2011

The No. 24 Michigan men’s tennis team defines itself by its work ethic, its determined mindset and its youth. Maybe that's why kit, or baby wolverine, is a more fitting title.

In a unique approach, Michigan coach Bruce Berque embraces his younger players' inexperience. In his defense, he does start six underclassmen, including sophomore Evan King playing in the team’s No. 1 singles slot. With so many underclassmen asked to do so much, Berque evaluated his team's 2-2 start to the season quite differently than some would expect:

“Three of the first four matches we’ve played have been against top-25 teams,” Berque said on Tuesday. “I think two of those teams will eventually be ranked in the top-10. Having the youth that we have, I feel like they are performing pretty well under pressure and improving every day. We are all pretty optimistic about what we have coming up.”

The Wolverines began the regular season with a home win against Western Michigan, but then went on to lose back-to-back matches against No. 5 Texas and No. 14 Duke. A 1-2 start is not ideal for any program, especially when the team’s fourth match was against No. 25 Virginia Tech. But the team responded against the Hokies, pulling off a close win, which Berque believed greatly improved his young team’s confidence.

Of the six single slots on the team, Berque starts three underclassmen in addition to King: freshmen Justin Rossi and Shaun Bernstein and sophomore Chris Cha. That's quite a lot of young players, but talent wise Berque claims to have a solid amount. Berque also acknowledged that playing his inexperienced team against such solid competition may impede progress, but he has built his program around consistently playing the other top-tier programs around the country.

“There is a definitely a point where you can make it too tough, especially for a young team,” Berque said. “But the team takes it as a positive. These guys are competitive, and they want to play against the best, and I think there is more to come out of playing a tougher schedule than playing a weaker one. These guys will be fine."

Some coaches would argue with Berque’s optimism. Former Marquette basketball coach Al McGuire once said, “The best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores.” The philosophy is built around the idea that freshmen need to make inexperienced mistakes in order to not repeat the same mistakes. Berque has a somewhat new approach to this mantra.

“Our guys have handled pressure situations pretty well considering they are all so inexperienced," Berque said. "I have always felt with these freshmen, that they are more mature than previous groups that we have had. They’re more consistent with their work ethic and it doesn’t fluctuate with winning, losing or playing poorly. They just work hard to try to get better.”

Berque and his Wolverines will play at home this Saturday against yet another top-25 opponent. Berque believes the match against No. 22 Wake Forest will display two evenly matched teams, and will come down to which team executes better on that day. And this young Wolverine squad already has top-25 worth experience to deal with that.