Five days before the UC Santa Cruz men’s tennis team’s first match on Jan. 17, assistant coach Aaron Elbert became the interim head coach of the team after head coach Christian DeJesus stepped down due to personal reasons. This marks the third coaching change in four years for the program. While the adjustment comes with a large workload, Elbert hasn’t lost focus on what’s most important — success.

“Our tennis team is one of the best teams on campus, we are consistently nationally ranked,” Elbert said. “This season we look to continue to reflect that, regardless of the circumstances.”

Elbert said he intends to do this by inspiring more team cohesion through academic and athletic performance. He wants his athletes to reach their entire potential by being not only elite players, but also devoted teammates and leaders — and his players are buying in.

“It only took a few practices to really connect with him. He is easy to connect with and he took time to talk with us individually,” senior Max Littlejohn said. “And he is young, so that has made it easier to connect with him right [from] the get-go.”

Elbert is currently undertaking all coaching responsibilities since he has no assistant coach. But starting Feb. 19, Mike Napoli will join him. A seven-time Western State Conference Coach of the Year, Napoli is also a two-time California Community College Athletic Association Coach of the Year and in 2002 he was recognized as the ITA National Community College Coach of the Year.

The team is early into the season, having only competed in two matches so far. One ended in a 4-0 loss against the Division I Santa Clara Broncos. The other was a comfortable 8-1 win over Santa Rosa Community College. This weekend, the team heads to Wala Wala, Washington to take on Whitman, Redlands and the University of Texas, Tyler.

While the team expects solid play from upperclassmen like junior Kyle Richter and Littlejohn, it also anticipates new recruits AJ Flora and Chad Stone to develop into the new faces of the program.

“AJ and Chad are both three-star recruits,” Richter said. “UCSC has not recruited two three-star recruits in over a decade. For us to get that recruiting class is a huge deal. I know from watching them play that all of them have the ability to grow and become national leaders for Division III athletics.”

The Slugs expect some heavy competition in Wala Wala as it will be the first Division III tournament they play this year. All teams are ranked in the top 25 nationally with a few projected to finish inside the top 15, but the Slugs — ranked No. 23 nationally — welcome the challenge of high-level competition and are confident that they can compete with the best in the country.

“Hopefully it will spark a little drive in us. We are very driven so far, but to be a national contender you have to want it,” Littlejohn said. “This weekend will take us from being motivated to win single games to winning on a national level. It’s just that next level of drive.”