Leads with Lucy: Young stars for Dayton’s tennis programs continue to make noise

Freshman women’s tennis player Julia Bays is one of the several underclassmen who have stepped up to perform for a team taking major strides after an 0-12 season that was cut short by COVID-19. Photo courtesy of University of Dayton Athletics.

Lucy Couch

Sports Staff Writer

This week I had the opportunity to interview the head women’s tennis coach at the University of Dayton, Erica Echko. She started coaching at Dayton in 2005 but left in 2007 to work as Interclub Coordinator at Five Seasons Sports Club in Northern Kentucky. 

She returned to Dayton in 2014 as an assistant coach and would later become the head coach for the women’s team in 2017. Echko was a phenomenal tennis player herself and had one of the best all-time winning percentages at Miami University.

Last year’s woes for women’s tennis:

Echko explained that last year was extremely difficult. The team went 0-12 before the season unexpectedly got cut short. 

“We usually play the tougher teams early on,” Echko said. “There was a match the day after everything got canceled that we definitely would have won.” 

This comment helped put last season in perspective as it was the first time Dayton has not won a single match within a season since 2004. Understanding the strength of the schedule for the early matches explained the 0-12 record.

Meanwhile, the men’s team went 8-8 last season with Ryan Meyer as head coach. Meyer got to Dayton in 2012 and made an impact instantly. He led his team to a winning season in 2015, something that had not been accomplished since 2007. 

Meyer had four straight winning seasons after that and took Dayton to the finals of the Atlantic 10 Championships in 2018 for the first time in 13 years. One of his players, Jordan Benjamin, also became the first Flyer to make the NCAA Tennis Championships.

Scheduling with COVID-19:

Typically, the women’s team would have 25 dates set for matches. However, this year Coach Echko explained the team is only up to 15 dates. Additionally, the Atlantic 10 canceled the fall season. The men’s team appears to have a reduced number of matches as well. 

The Atlantic 10 Championship for men’s tennis is scheduled to start on April 29, while the women will get started a day earlier, on April 28. Echko has a goal of winning one match there. Due to COVID-19, there was no postseason championship last year. 

In the 2018-19 season, the men won against George Washington in the Atlantic 10 Championships, but the women have not claimed a postseason win since the 2017-18 season, against George Mason.

Current status and stars for women’s and men’s tennis:

The women’s tennis team is currently 3-6 this season, which is already three more wins than last season. Five out of its nine players on the roster are underclassmen. Kelly Pleiman is the lone senior this year and Echko raved about her talent on and off the court. 

“Kelly works really hard and leads by example,” Echko said. “Kelly takes a lesson every week with the coach at Five Seasons. That girl has never gotten a “B” and was valedictorian of her high school.” 

Pleiman has not been able to practice with the team for the past 10 days due to being a contact trace but is expected to be back within the next few days. In their latest match, the women’s team swept Cedarville 7-0 on Friday at South Regency Tennis Center in Miamisburg, as Pleiman returned with a 3-set win.

Sophomore Erica Wojcikiewicz was named Atlantic 10 Women’s Tennis Performer of the Week on Feb. 16. This is the first time a player from Dayton has received this honor since Mattea Kilstofte in April of 2018. 

Wojcikiewicz went 5-9 in singles play as a freshman and is currently 6-3 in singles play this season. She also claimed Ohio’s College Advantage Student Athlete of the Week on Feb. 24.

Freshman Julia Bays is also off to a great start, earning Atlantic 10 Women’s Tennis Rookie of the Week on March 4. Bays went 2-0 in her first two matches of her collegiate career against Bellarmine on Feb. 26, at No. 3 for doubles and No. 6 for singles.

The men’s tennis team is 5-5 for the season, evening its overall record on March 4. The team faces Eastern Illinois on Friday, March 5, at South Regency Tennis Center. 

Connor Bruce is a returning top player for Dayton, holding the No. 1 spot in singles. He is a sophomore out of Pittsburgh who won five Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Week honors as a freshman and won eight out of his final ten matches of that season. Bruce was a touted four-star recruit and has been ranked as high as No. 61 nationally. 

Erik Eliasson was also named Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Week on March 4. Eliasson is a freshman who went 2-1 overall against Cedarville and Bellarmine on Feb. 26. He held the No. 3 singles spot against Cedarville and Bellarmine. Originally from Kinna, Sweden, Eliasson looks to improve throughout his freshman season. The men’s team is also a young squad, with seven out of its twelve members being underclassmen.

UD’s gap in tennis scholarships:

When interviewing Echko, the topic of scholarships came up. The information I was told shocked me. For the women’s team, Dayton only allows for one and a half scholarships, split between the whole roster. However, the men’s team receives four and a half. Echko explained that most of her players have already maxed out on academic scholarships. 

At most schools, a tennis team gets eight scholarships. It was interesting to hear that most of the tennis players on the women’s team are not on an athletic scholarship. It was also interesting to hear that men’s tennis players are able to major in engineering and biology, where at other larger schools, players are not allowed to pick those majors.

Moving forward with recruits:

Overall, Echko relayed that since 2007, the level of play at Dayton has become stronger and the coaches are able to recruit better players. As stated previously, Connor Bruce was ranked as high as No. 61 nationally. 

Meyer had three five-star recruits during the 2018-2019 season, all ranking in the top 30 of their respective classes according to the Tennis Recruiting Network. Echko already has three recruits for next season and explained her team is continuing to improve on doubles. 

Though now Echko is focused on the season she is excited for what next year has to offer. With the men’s team off to a good start, I would assume Meyer looks to build his team as well and make a run in the postseason.

I look forward to following men’s and women’s tennis at Dayton and hopefully seeing one or both teams make a run in the Atlantic 10 Championship in April. Stay tuned for a new post next week on personalities. My classmates and I have the opportunity to interview Coach Staley, former University of Dayton football player and current head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers. 

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