GREEN BAY, Wis. (GreenBayPhoenix.com) - When Mark Thomas took over as head coach of the Green Bay men's tennis team in 2008, he had plans of elevating the program to new heights. In 2011-12, after four seasons of increased success, Thomas and the Phoenix did just that by winning the school's first Horizon League Championship and earning its first trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Green Bay finished the year with a school-record 19 wins (19-7, 6-1 Horizon League), defeating four-time defending champion Cleveland State in the Horizon League title match before wrapping up the season with a hard-fought NCAA tourney loss at No. 7 Pepperdine in Malibu, Calif.
"This season's experience was big for the program," Thomas said. "We're just on the verge of being ranked. We played the No. 7 team in the nation and battled. We know what we need to focus on to get to that next level, and that's what we're going to work hard for next year."
The Phoenix has steadily improved under Thomas, winning nine matches his first year, 13 his second and a then-record 16 his third before the program-best 19 wins in 2011-12.
One of the first players Thomas brought into the program was Paul Swanson (Coon Rapids, Minn.), who recently wrapped up one of the most successful careers in Green Bay history. Swanson has played a key role in the team's four-year climb to the top of the Horizon League, finishing his career as the school's all-time leader in singles victories with a record of 94-42 (64-28 spring, 30-14 fall).
"Winning the Horizon League and making it to the NCAA Tournament has been the dream since my freshman year," Swanson said. "We've just built this team up every year, we've gotten a little bit better, brought in stronger recruits, and the guys have worked hard in practice every day."
The senior was second in the Horizon League Player of the Year voting this year, earning first team all-league honors for the first time after picking up second team recognition in each of his first three seasons. He was the first Phoenix player since Ben Davis (2001-04) to earn all-conference honors in each of his four years.
The Phoenix had three total all-conference selections, as freshman Michael Tenzer (Neuried, Germany) joined Swanson on the first team and junior Erik Finkenbrink (Duelmen, Germany) earned a second-team nod. Green Bay was the only school to land more than one player on the first team, and the three all-league selections tied Wright State for the most from one school.
Swanson and Tenzer became the first Phoenix players to earn first team honors since Tim Prudlow was selected in 2007. It also marked the first time Green Bay placed two on the first team since 2003 when Davis and Robert Shamilikian grabbed first-team hardware.
HORIZON LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIPS
Green Bay earned the No. 2 seed and a first round bye in the 2012 Horizon League tournament after finishing the conference slate with a 6-1 record. Its only defeat came to top-seeded Wright State (7-0), a 4-3 road loss on April 14.
Watch a Horizon League Championships preview story by Fox 11 here.
The Phoenix rolled past No. 6 Butler in the Horizon League semifinals 4-1, earning its second straight trip to the title match against fourth-seeded Cleveland State, who beat the top-ranked Raiders in their semifinal match. Green Bay got off to a fast start in the championship contest, winning the doubles point and closing out two of the first three singles matches before Tenzer secured the 4-1 victory with a win at No. 2 singles.
Watch a recap of the 2012 Horizon League Championships here.
After returning from Indianapolis with the school's first Horizon League Championship trophy, the Phoenix gathered at The Bar on Lime Kiln to watch the NCAA.com Selection Show to find out its opponent in the program's first NCAA Tournament. The team learned that it would be traveling to Malibu, Calif., to take on one of the top teams in the nation - No. 7 Pepperdine - on its home courts.
Watch Green Bay's selection show reaction here.
Green Bay battled hard against the Waves, who were coming off their 42nd West Coast Conference title, but the Phoenix's historic season ultimately came to an end on the shores of the Pacific Ocean with a 4-0 result. The win was Pepperdine's 21st in a row, their longest streak of dual victories in school history. The Waves went on to win four more NCAA Tournament matches to advance to the Final Four where they fell 4-1 to national runner-up Virginia.
One of the highlights of Green Bay's match at Pepperdine came from senior Christoph Hopfe (Castrop-Rauxel, Germany), who was playing his best tennis in the final contest of his career. Hopfe dominated the first set with a 6-1 win over Daniel Moss at No. 6 singles and was on serve down 5-4 when the Waves secured the fourth and final point of the afternoon.
Despite the loss, Thomas was extremely proud of his squad and knows that the experience gained from the team's first NCAA Tournament trip will bode well for the Phoenix in the coming years.
"We played with great effort from the very start," Thomas said. "Our guys competed well. It's been a great year. I'm really proud of the effort from start to finish and it's something that we're going to build on. It was our first time here at the NCAAs, and we're looking forward to bigger and better things in the future."
BY THE NUMBERS: Green Bay posted several impressive numbers during its historic 2011-12 campaign. The Phoenix went a combined 15-0 in non-road matches (8-0 at home, 7-0 on neutral courts). Craig Cox (Surrey, England) posted a team-high 21 singles victories (21-4), going 12-0 when playing at No. 3 and No. 4. Erik Finkenbrink recorded a team-best 20-4 doubles record, which included a 14-2 mark at the No. 1 spot.
PLAYERS OF THE WEEK: Green Bay picked up four Horizon League Player of the Week awards in 2011-12, as Paul Swanson was honored twice and Michael Tenzer and Craig Cox were each recognized once. Swanson won league honors in back-to-back weeks (April 3, April 10), leading the Phoenix to a 4-0 start in conference play while going 4-0 in singles action. They marked the second and third awards of his career, as he was also honored as a sophomore in 2010.
Tenzer won his first career player of the week award on Feb. 22 after going a combined 7-0 in singles and doubles, helping the Phoenix to a 4-0 record during the period of Feb. 13-19. Cox picked up the weekly honors on Jan. 31 after he posted a 4-0 record in the team's first weekend of play. It marked the first such award of Cox's career.
EARNING RANK: The 2011-12 season was a year of firsts for the Phoenix. In addition to its first Horizon League title and first NCAA appearance, Green Bay also had its first nationally-ranked double team. In March it was announced that the freshman duo of Michael Tenzer and Felix Goepper (Seelbach, Germany) were ranked 61st among Division I doubles partners. Tenzer and Goepper finished the year with a 13-4 doubles record, including an unbeaten 8-0 mark at the No. 2 spot.
FANTASTIC FALL: In addition to its record-breaking spring, the Phoenix also had a successful fall season against tough competition. In the year-opening Purdue Invitational, Swanson took home the Flight B singles championship, winning five matches over three days in the 11-team, 45-player field. Swanson then went unbeaten at the Bradley Invitational, taking the No. 3 singles title, while Finkenbrink went 4-0 to claim the No. 1 singles flight. At the Ball State Invite Swanson made it three-for-three when he went 5-0 to capture the Flight A singles title, defeating his opponent from Louisville in the final match. The Phoenix also had doubles teams come away with fall titles, including the freshman duo of Tenzer and Michael Tebon (Excelsior, Minn.), who nabbed the Cardinal bracket championship at Ball State.###
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