February 4, 2011 8:26:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- A year makes all the difference.
Last spring, the Mississippi State men''s tennis team leaned on players who hadn''t played at the top of the lineup.
Coach Per Nilsson hopes the experience players like George Coupland and Louis Cant gained last season will carry over into improving the Bulldogs'' 2-8 league record from last season.
Through two dual matches this season, Nilsson has freshmen pushing the upperclassmen for spots in the top five.
Freshman Malte Stropp earned Southeastern Conference Player of the Week last week honors following his comeback singles win against Texas A&M and default doubles win against Arizona.
Stropp, who began his freshman season as the 10th best freshman singles player in the country, has won four straight matches entering MSU''s match Saturday at Georgia Tech.
In the fall, he led MSU in singles wins with five and has provided a pleasant surprise to complement Coupland (No. 1) and No. 2 Artem Ilyushin.
"Malte has been awesome," Nilsson said. "He hasn''t shown any freshman jitters or anything. He''s basically gone in and competed hard. It doesn''t make a different who is on the other side. It''s tough for freshman to do that."
Cant is ranked No. 60 in the nation in singles, and is Nilsson''s No. 5 singles player. Cant played one through three last season. Playing Cant at No. 5 shows what kind of depth MSU has, but also signals the team hasn''t settled on a lineup.
"It''s a good problem to have, though," Nilsson said. "George is at the top of lineup and just needs confidence in that he can play up there. I have it, but he needs it himself. We also have five or six guys after that who are really close. We have a bunch of good two and three singles players. We feel good about being deep, but we''re waiting on guys to prove they can do damage high in the lineup."
Stropp is one of three freshmen who''ve impressed Nilsson. Zach White and Trey Seymour have built on strong juniors tennis campaigns. White went 2-1 in singles play in the fall and was ranked as high as 70th in the world junior rankings before coming to MSU.
Nilsson hopes the talent of the freshman class and the non-conference experience will pay off in league play.
"All of three of them are really good junior players, so it''s not like they hadn''t competed at high level," Nilsson said. "That said, they''re still coming into a men''s game, and that''s why Malte has been impressive.
"You don''t really get a break in SEC, but the first match we showed a little bit of jitters. That''s why we play a top-10 team early. I expect them to get rid of those jitters really quick."
Homan looking for difference-makers
One week before the men''s golf team begins the season at the Gator Invitational, coach Clay Homan said his lineup hasn''t taken shape like he''d hoped.
Poor training conditions due to winter weather and rain have limited the Bulldogs'' practices and lessened chances to compete for places on the traveling squad.
The eighth-year MSU coach has been impressed enough with Lee Heaton and Chad Ramey that he considers them locks in his top five.
Ramey had MSU''s two best finishes in the fall after taking fifth at the Sam Hall Intercollegiate and seventh at the Mason Rudolph Championship. He ended the fall with two of MSU''s 4-under-par finishes.
The Bulldogs'' plus-4 average from the fall won''t cut it in the spring, Homan said.
"The expectation level is higher for sure," Homan said. "The consistency is there one through seven, but we need to have those one or two guys to give us a boost like all teams have, one or two guys who can consistently shoot under par. That''s crucial."
Homan hopes sophomore Robi Calvesbert can return to form after leading the Bulldogs in their first three spring tournaments last season.
Sophomore Brad Mason, who finished tied for eighth at the Southeastern Conference championship last season, but has struggled in three team qualifying rounds.
"Calvasbert''s short game is holding him back, so it''s a matter of him getting flaws corrected so he can score around the green," Homan said. "So many of our guys are close in a lot of areas. Mason, same thing. He had a good fall. He gives us a good chance to shoot low, but he''s shooting 77s and 78s in qualifying, which is uncharacteristic."
MSU will face the University of Mississippi, Auburn, Florida State, and host-school Florida at the Gator Invitational.
"We had a chance to play with Florida and Auburn at the (Jerry) Pate (tournament) in the fall, and it was an eye-opener for some of our guys to see what golf is like at this level," Homan said. "I''m excited to see us compete."
Track team building depth
The recent track headlines have been generated by its all-star sprint squad.
The Bulldogs won three sprint relays at the Penn Relays last season and the 4x400-meter relay at the Millrose Games.
Dwight Mullings is the only sprinter who graduated from last season''s record-setting squad. Sophomore Daundre Barnaby and freshman James Harris ran the first and second leg of the 4x400 that won last week at the Millrose Games.
The Bulldogs also return All-American quarter-miler Tavaris Tate and All-American hurdler and relay runner Emanuel Mayers.
Like Mayers, Harris is a dual-threat who''ll provide extra points. The freshman also competes in the high jump and won the LSU Invite with a height of 7 feet, 3 inches.
Fellow freshman Marcus Jackson also has cleared 6-11 3/4 this season.
"We better be counting on them because we recruited hard in those areas," MSU coach Steve Dudley said. "In the past, I didn''t think we recruited the kids we needed to compete in those events at a national level. James and Marcus Jackson were two of top five jumpers in the country last year, so you expect them to start contributing right off the bat."
MSU''s men will run a limited indoor schedule and won''t return to the track until the USA Indoor Championships on Feb. 26.