For the first time in program history, both the East Central Community College men's and women's tennis teams will open the spring season with a national ranking.
The Lady Warriors are No. 20 in the first Oracle/ITA JUCO Women's Top 25 Poll of the season released Jan. 23 and No 7 in Region III. The Warriors are No. 21 in the men's poll and No. 8 in Region III.
Both teams are coming off successful 2019 spring seasons, with the East Central men receiving an at-large bid to the National Junior College Athletic Association Division I Men's National Championship, where they finished 19th. The ECCC women finished fourth in the Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges State/NJCAA Region 23 Tournament and with a No. 24 national ranking.
On the men's side, the top five players return from a year ago. Chris Lawrance (York, Western Australia), Isaac Santitto (Innisfail, Queensland, Australia), Dylan Barnett (Newton County), Peyton Chaney (Newton County), and Dominick Donaldson (Florence) all contributed to last year's team that advanced to the national tournament. Jacob Gardner (Wayne County) also returns and will provide much-needed depth.
While positions are still being decided, Lawrance/Santitto and Barnett/Chaney should make up two of the three doubles teams.
"Expectations are high obviously," said fifth-year coach Jay Pacelli. "We have a true veteran team. Experience, leadership, and character will be the strengths of this men's team. They've been through the wars last year and want more. It might be the strongest men's team since I've been at East Central."
Joining the returning players are Chris Albert (Vicksburg, St. Aloysius) and Rhy Elizar (Florence).
"Chris is a hard server who was one of the better high school singles players in the state, and he should shore up our singles lineup," said Pacelli. "Rhy was a very good doubles player in high school and should be key to our doubles efforts."
Pacelli said the goals for the men remain the same, to win the state championship or at a minimum finish in the top three and advance to the national tournament.
"We competed against the top programs in the state during the fall season, and we feel we match up well with all of the elite teams. We are definitely in a position to challenge for that top spot this spring."
Pacelli believes his women's team is also in a position to fight for a top three finish in the state and a trip to the national tournament.
"This could potentially be the best women's team at East Central in recent history," Pacelli said. "We just missed out on the national tournament last season, and this team is improved. The driving force for them will be not getting an at-large bid last year and making sure that doesn't happen again."
Pacelli said the "heart" of the women's team returns in three players who all won state championships while at Newton County High School. They include Josie Hurst, Kayla Baucum, and Ali Grace Walker. Hurst and Walker will again form one doubles team, having played together for several years.
Natalia Beltran and Alejandra Vargas, two newcomers from Bogota, Colombia, will contribute heavily at the top of the singles and doubles lineup this spring.
"Alejandra and Natalia are very accomplished tournament players who will make the top of our singles lineup better than we've been in my time here," noted Pacelli. "They have helped the rest of our team become better players."
Three other local products make up the rest of the first-year players and will be counted on throughout the spring. Courtney Gill (Leake Academy), Marla Graham (Newton County Academy), and Laila Sisson (Neshoba Central) are new members of the Lady Warrior team.
"All three women come from accomplished high school programs and will provide depth in singles and doubles," said Pacelli. "We are exited to have them as part of the team.
"We feel good about this women's team. We have that strong returning nucleus of players from last year and have upgraded the talent of the team with very talented first-year players. We have solid talent from top to bottom, and we are looking forward to seeing what this team can accomplish."
Both East Central teams open the season Friday, Jan. 31, when they host Itawamba at 1 p.m. at the Tennis Complex on the ECCC campus in Decatur. A complete spring schedule can be found at www.ecccathletics.com.
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