RICHMOND, Va. - When first-year Athletic Director Ed McLaughlin was hired, he made said that one of VCU Athletics' 16 intercollegiate programs could one day win a national championship.
One of the reasons that McLaughlin's statement isn't far-fetched is because of programs like VCU men's tennis, which played for the national championship in 2000 and has made 19 NCAA Tournament appearances in the past 21 years.
Although they are in a new conference, Head Coach Paul Kostin and the Rams still have the same goal, and it's simple: win.
Coming off a conference title last year, Kostin and the Black & Gold return four of their top six players and have added five newcomers to the roster, which has given VCU a new edge in practice.
"Having nine guys is not typical for us, but it's really helped make things more competitive in practice," Kostin said. "Each guy comes ready to battle each day, and it's helped us continue to get better as we practice more and more."
Leading the charge for the Rams is the veteran duo of senior Max Wennakoski and junior Alexis Heugas (pictured, right). Wennakoski has posted back-to-back 20 win seasons, while Heugas is coming off an All-American doubles accolade last year.
"Both Max and Alexis are solid players for us and will need to be our leaders if we want to accomplish the goals that we have of winning championships," Kostin said. "They both have a different set of skills that allow them to play at the top of our lineup and really set the tone for us."
Wennakoski has won 43 singles matches over the past two seasons and enters the 2013 spring campaign as VCU's highest-rated singles player at No. 45 in the preseason ITA rankings.
"Max is a player who doesn't necessarily blow people away, but is good in just about every area. Some people may look at him and say 'how does he keep winning', but that's what he's been able to do since he got here," Kostin said. "With a bunch of new guys in our program, he's going to have to really step up and be a leader for us this spring."
Heugas made a magical run in last year's NCAA Doubles Tournament with Antoine Baroz, reaching the Elite Eight and to earn ITA All-American accolades. On the singles court, Heugas played at the top spot in VCU's lineup for much of last season, posting a 25-9 mark for the Black & Gold.
"Alex is a really talented to player that is continuing to improve. He's in better shape this year and is really working hard to improve his overall knowledge of the situational side of tennis," Kostin said. "If he stays focused and continues to work, he can be a real good player for us."
Jaime Vazquez is another upperclassman that plays a big role for the Rams, solidifying the back end of VCU's lineup. The La Coruna, Spain native went 18-3 in dual matches last spring and 25-7 overall last year en route to helping the Rams march into the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Junior Alejandro Argente is the fourth returning member of the Rams. After posting 20 singles victories a year ago, Argente will battle for a spot in the middle of the Black & Gold lineup this spring.
Kostin and the Rams have five new faces this year with the addition of Claes Goransson, Pascal Domnik, Dylan McCloskey, Francis Pare and Micael Voseck to the Black & Gold roster. All five are expected to compete for spots in the VCU lineup immediately.
"All of them have a chance to help us right away," Kostin said. "They've already helped us become more competitive in practice and any time you can have valuable depth is a good thing. Staying healthy isn't always easy, so when you can have other options to rely on, it makes it much easier."
Another change that the long-time head coach will have to adjust to is a new conference, as the Rams will be competing in the Atlantic 10 for the first time in the program's history.
"Changing conferences doesn't affect our mindset at all. We take the court trying to win every time and approach practice every day with the mindset of getting better," Kostin said. "It doesn't matter what conference you're in, if you're not approaching practice or a match with a winning mindset, you're not going to get very far."