The UC Santa Cruz men’s tennis team took its home court three weeks before school started in order to prepare for the 2015-16 fall season. Leaders Kyle Richter and Sean Hollister ran practices to get the team ready for the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) Division III West Regional — one of the team’s most significant tournaments of the season.
But each player’s hard work would go to waste without an official head coach. Interim head coach Aaron Elbert’s coaching term ended June 30 and former head coach Christian De Jesus-Nazario stated in late August that he wouldn’t be returning from his leave of absence during the 2014-15 season, leaving the team with no coach to take them to the ITA.
A week before the team’s first match against UC Irvine, Mike “Nap” Napoli was announced as the program’s fifth head coach in as many seasons — just in time for the start of the season.
“This summer was touch-and-go, the whole team wanted Nap to get the job but we were unsure if it was going to happen,” senior Kyle Richter said. “The best way to be prepared, especially as a doubles player, is to play. It’s helpful to have a coach for the stability but you don’t need somebody physically out there all the time as long as you’re playing.”
Napoli originally joined Elbert’s coaching staff as a volunteer coach in spring 2015. The two met when Elbert played under Napoli at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
“One thing I really believe in as a coach is building relationships,” Napoli said. “I maintained my relationships with these players even when I wasn’t sure if I would be coming back or not. And I told them to have an active summer. It sure paid off.”
Napoli was awarded with nine Coach of the Year awards in various conferences, including ITA National Coach of the Year in 2009, and was inducted in the California State Coaches Hall of Fame in 2013.
“I was a head coach and took responsibility for management, but Mike was incredible last year,” Elbert said. “He has coached world-ranked players and he has years of coaching experience. He will take the team to another level and he will do a fantastic job. I fully endorse him as the next UCSC men’s tennis coach.”
When UCSC athletic director Cliff Dochterman offered Napoli the position, Napoli also volunteered to serve as the interim coach for the women’s team until Dochterman hires a head coach. He said he would be interested in taking over the head coaching position.
“I would do that in a heart beat,” Napoli said. “My interest is to do both. I know the advantages. The main one being able to have the ability to not just create two separate programs, but one. We did that already, I had our men and women play mixed doubles — which they have never done since they’ve been here. It’s something that needs to be nurtured and developed, and it hasn’t been here.”
Napoli will take the women’s team to Cal State Stanislaus later this month to compete in a non-traditional tournament. While the women don’t start official competitions until January, the men’s team was nearly in full swing before Napoli signed the official documents to become the head coach.
Napoli’s connections and expertise have already paid dividends for the team. Before entering the team’s biggest tournament of the season, Napoli landed the team a match against Division I UC Irvine the Thursday before the weekend tournament. It is unusual for a Division III team to get matches against Division I schools, but Napoli used his connections to get UCSC the preparation it needed going into the ITA.
Richter and doubles partner sophomore Adrian Sirovica beat Irvine’s No. 1 doubles team, giving them the confidence they needed going into the ITA western regional. In Sunday’s final on Oct. 3, Richter and Sirovica defeated the Claremont-Mudd team of Skyler Butts and Glenn Hull in straight sets (6-4, 6-4) to win the ITA Division III West Regional doubles championship over 31 other teams.
“I was surprised but also not surprised,” Napoli admitted. “I knew last year when I saw this team that they had the talent, they just needed more sophistication and structure.”
Napoli also said it was worth noting that last year, Sirovica didn’t even have an active role on the roster.
“I saw him on the bench and I knew we needed to change that. I put him at No. 3 doubles, then No. 2 and I knew he had a lot of talent,” Napoli said. “This kid who was just sitting there on the bench last year when he could easily be playing at a [Division I] school. He has a lot to learn but he has the physical talent. I’m relying on [senior] Kyle [Richter’s] expertise to help Adrian’s talent because he is a very knowledgeable player.”
Garrett Deguchi and Max Littlejohn were the last UCSC’s athletes to win the ITA western region’s doubles championship in 2013 with a win over California Lutheran University.
“This is the best Santa Cruz has looked in a while,” Richter said. “This is the strongest our lineup has looked in years since we graduated a lot of seniors a few years ago and have had all these coaching changes. The majority of the team played well, not just Adrian and I. We put in the work all summer and the results really show how much effort we put in.”
Richter and Sirovica are scheduled to compete in the ITA Small College National championship from October 15-18 in South Carolina.
Under Napoli, Dochterman is confident the men’s program is moving back to the caliber it was when Bob Hansen was the head coach.
“His first tournament out, he took the guy to the ITA’s and two became All-Americans by winning the doubles tournament,” Dochterman said. “Two guys had never played before became All-Americans. I feel very good about the direction of men’s tennis with him in charge.”
Napoli says he couldn’t have done it without the help of the entire athletic department.
“The staff have been extremely generous to me,” Napoli said. “I have weaknesses in certain areas but the administration, staff, coaches and athletic trainers have been so generous with their time. They never get mentioned, the reality of the fact is that I don’t consider them support staff — they are the staff.”