RIO GRANDE VALLEY – The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) men’s tennis program had a strong fall season, getting significant contribution from newcomers and seeing improvement from returners.
“We had a very good fall. We showed good growth and we were able to work on specifics with each student-athlete and saw that improvement throughout the fall,” men’s tennis head coach Nathan Robinson said. “With over half the team being new, the biggest thing was getting culture set and the guys working together toward a common goal.”
At the start of the 2022-23 academic and athletic year, Robinson said it was hard to know exactly what he hoped to see from the four newcomers on his squad through the fall season. Three months later, it’s safe to say those new pieces impressed with their commitment and work ethic, with junior transfer Emilia burnel leading the way.
Burnel opened his UTRGV career by going 3-0 in singles to win the D Draw Championship at UTSA’s Roadrunner Invitational, earning the TicketSmarter Western Athletic Conference (WAC) Men’s Tennis Singles Player of the Month award in September. He won his fourth consecutive singles match to open the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) Regional Championship, advancing to the qualifying Round of 32. Burnel finished the fall season with a team-best 4-2 singles record and tied with sophomore Sam Whitehead with a team-leading 3-2 doubles record. He earned victories over opponents from rival Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (TAMUCC), UTSA and Abilene Christian (ACU) and won a second conference award in October, being named the TicketSmarter WAC Men’s Tennis Doubles Player of the Month with sophomore Borna Devald.
“Emi is a guy who has played top of the lineup at the NCAA Division I level for three years. He hit the ground running,” Robinson said. “This guy is a worker who 100 percent understands tennis and college tennis. He’s not our most vocal guy, but he doesn’t need to be because every day he doesn’t stop until that gas light is flashing. He had a great fall and showed the competitiveness, athleticism, and shot-making ability we expect to be a nightmare for any opponent he plays against for his two years with us.”
Devald was 2-3 in singles playing as UTRGV’s No. 1 and finished 2-3 in doubles. He advanced to the Main Draw Round of 32 in singles and doubles (with Burnel) at ITA Regionals and showed a ton of fight against elite competitors. sophomore Karl Krolo and freshman McAllen Memorial alum Augustin Salazar, so new Vaqueros, were impressive, too. Krolo went 3-2 in singles and won three matches in a row, including a first-round victory at ITA Regionals. Salazar went 3-0 at UTRGV’s season-opening tournament, winning the Singles H Draw.
Whitehead showed significant strides as he began his second year at UTRGV. He went 2-2 in singles and 3-2 in doubles, and has stepped up as a confident, vocal key contributor for the Vaqueros.
“An underappreciated highlight of our fall season, that’s not seen from the outside, was Borna, Sam and Karlo committing to adjustments we made,” Robinson said. “All have won a lot of matches, but the level we are asking them to win at consistently requires slight changes to their games and they all committed to shifting. We saw some exciting things from them through the fall.”
A big highlight from the fall campaign was UTRGV’s 10-0 day at the Roadrunner Invitational. Be it in singles and/or doubles matches, all seven Vaqueros earned at least one win on Sept. 24 in the second day of competition at their first tournament of the fall. They picked up victories against opponents from TAMUCC, ACU, SMU, UTSA, Rice, Incarnate Word and other solid programs.
Helping to spark that day’s success and the strong performances throughout the fall season was the emphasis Robinson put on ball striking from Day 1. The Vaqueros endured grueling practices with long, hard drills to sharpen tennis skills and build stamina and strength, but also put a lot of time into making smart decisions on the court.
“We really worked on increasing our ball-striking ability and getting ourselves ready to deliver quality shots against the highest competition. You only do that by going through very difficult drills that are physically and mentally taxing. We did a great job of bringing great energy for it every day, and because of this we saw a huge step in our ability to compete against higher and higher levels of competition,” Robinson said.
Even though the group was pleased with their fall campaign, the Vaqueros are far from satisfied. They’re putting in work through the winter break to be ready to charge full steam ahead into the spring season come January, eager to bring the program to new heights.
“Our guys are hungry. They have been in tournaments all around the state finding more opportunities to compete and prepare for our spring season,” Robinson said. “The young guys have adapted to college tennis well and should be prepared to take huge strides for the program in the new year.”