By Andrew Festa

Coach Newman speaks to the men's and women's teams before beginning practice early on a Saturday morning.

UIW tennis coach John Newman stands in front of his players, who are assembled on the bleachers at Clarence Mabry Tennis Center on campus. It’s a chilly Saturday morning in January, a few weeks before the spring season begins, but he’s speaking to them as if they’re in the middle of heated competition, not merely getting ready to practice.

He emphasizes the importance of mental toughness – that overcoming personal weaknesses and distractions is the key to defeating an opponent. He stresses that if his players focus and give maximum effort, even in practice, then they’ll be able to measure just how good they are and really have fun on the court.

Even before that day, Incarnate Word’s prospects of returning to the NCAA Division II National Championships were promising.

The Cardinals men’s team began the spring season ranked No. 1 of 12 colleges in the South Central Region by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA), and the women were ranked No. 5 out of 10 schools.

The No. 1 preseason ranking – a first for the UIW men’s team – was due largely to the Cardinals’ performance at the ITA regional tournament in October.

“Nobody was expecting that,” Newman said. “There are coaches wondering why we’re No. 1 in the region because they have such a great team, but our guys just kept winning.”

Senior Francisco Segura reached the finals in singles after facing a UIW teammate, sophomore Alex Wieland, in the semis. Senior Jose Pablo Arizpe made the third round. In doubles, Wieland and junior Max Moreau advanced to the finals.

The strong showing boosted the team’s ranking from No. 8 at the end of the 2009 spring season to atop the first poll of the new season.

“Everybody thought they’d win against us – we weren’t dangerous for them,” said Moreau, the team captain.

As for the women’s team, senior Stephanie Rodriguez began the season No. 11 in singles. As a team, the women set the bar high.

“I think we have a very good chance at going to nationals,” senior Erica Engberg said.

She echoed other teammates, saying that personal goals come second to the team’s success.

“We’re a very team-oriented group of people; we’re like a big family,” she said of the women’s squad. “We all look out for each other. Even during the individual season, we still work and help each other out.”

Nationally, the men ranked 18th out of 45 and the women were 24th out of 50 before the season began Feb. 12.

“It’s good because our season starts a little later than most schools. We’re having a lot of time to bond,” freshman Alex Adams said. “Our girls team gets along so well. We have ridiculous chemistry. It’s going to be a good season.”

The South Central Region is composed mostly of colleges in Texas and Oklahoma from the Heartland Conference, which UIW currently plays in, and the Lone Star Conference, which UIW will join in July.

Cardinals men’s and women’s teams have advanced to nationals once each since Incarnate Word moved from NAIA play to NCAA Division II starting in 2000. The men did so in 2002 and the women in 2008.

Moreau says that the team knows that preseason accolades are just a small step in the journey to Altamonte, Fla., for nationals in May.

“We have to keep it up. The road is long.”

Newman feels that Incarnate Word tennis has a bright future.

“We have summer camps and we have junior programs, which allow us as a tennis element to reach out into the community … which then allows us to have some friends that support the program. Without their support our program wouldn’t be at the level that it is.”