Q&A with Coach Valentini

One old sports cliché claims, "It's tough to win a championship ... but it's even tougher to repeat." Apparently they've never heard that one at Gustavus Adolphus College.

The Gustie men's tennis team claimed the MIAC regular-season championship this season and achieved a significant milestone in the process. It was the team's 25th championship in a row. Take a moment to process that. For a quarter century, the Gusties have hoisted the MIAC trophy at the end of every season, and have been the top seed in every MIAC Playoff tournament (under its current format).

That's remarkable, and certainly worthy of a closer look. The run of dominance largely came under the direction of legendary Gustavus Steve Wilkinson. During that run, Wilkinson coached a young man by the name of Tommy Valentini. With Wilkinson now retired, Valentini has take the reins from his former coach, but the championship streak is still intact.

The MIAC Media Blog is proud to resurrect the "Championship Coach Q&A" series, which goes in-depth with the title-winning coach for each sport following the season. With 25 straight titles to celebrate, and his contributions as both player and coach during the streak, Valentini was an easy choice to lead off the spring championship-winning coaches on the blog. Enjoy his insights about his team, the streak and the future of the storied Gusties' program.

MIAC Media Blog Championship Coach Q&A
Tommy Valentini, Gustavus Men's Tennis

Tommy Valentini
MIAC: First of all, congratulations on your 2013 MIAC Championship. What made your team so successful this season?

VALENTINI: We had a wonderful group of young men and excellent leadership from our upper classmen.  They really committed themselves to our values and to living them out on a daily basis. We had some guys really step up their games and make huge improvements. We were fortunate to be a deep team and we received important contributions from everyone on our roster.  

MIAC: Your team had a number of star players, including Amrik Donkena and Mya Smith-Dennis. What made those two players so special this season and how did they contribute to your success?

VALENTINI: Amrik and Mya gave us a lot of talent and stability at the top of our lineup.  They allowed us to compete at the top of the lineup with every team we played.  They both played some No. 1 singles throughout the year, and I think what is truly special about them is that they are team-first guys.  When one of them played No. 2, he always offered huge support to the other who was at No. 1, and went out to do his best for our team at No. 2 - a position at which we enjoyed great success all year.

As a doubles team they gave us a shot every time out, and experienced matches where they we're absolutely electric.  They're three-time All-Americans, NCAA runners-up and quarterfinalists, and undefeated in the MIAC throughout their partnership - but what's most impressive is that they are excellent young men on and off the court, and they really led our team by example in terms of poise and belief. They formed a very special partnership from the time Mya arrived on campus, and we will cherish their run together.  

MIAC: Talk about some of the other players that helped your team have an outstanding season.

VALENTINI: As I noted above, we really had unbelievable contributions from our entire team. Grant Leisner moved into a starting role in singles and doubles this year. He and Tyler Johnson gave us a very strong team at No. 2 doubles. Joey MacGibbon and Bradley Entwistle were very solid for us at the bottom of the singles lineup and really provided the depth that allowed for a lot of our success.  

But really, it's the entire team. It's guys pulling for each other, pushing each other and always being there to support each other. Marcel Gyswyt is a classic example. He's one of our leaders who has played in many big matches for us in the past. This year he started a few less of the big ones than he had in previous years, but he worked extremely hard every day, stepped in and performed at an All-Conference level when called upon, and was right there to love and support his teammates at every turn. Perhaps more than guys who put us ahead on the scoreboard, it's this type of leadership and commitment to being a great teammate that allow a team to grow together and have the type of season that we can we look back on as having been outstanding.  

MIAC: Are there one or two special moments that stand out from your 2013 championship season?

VALENTINI: There really are so many. When you have a great group of guys, the stand-out moments often take place during the week at practice. I would say, though, that in addition to having some great road trips, our win against long-time rival UC-Santa Cruz at the National Indoor was very special. The same can be said for our NCAA tourney win against UW-Whitewater. These were very long matches with many swings in momentum. The poise, belief, and togetherness our guys showed throughout them really exemplified what this group was about.  

MIAC: This is the 25th-straight MIAC Regular Season Championship. You've been involved in titles now as both a student-athlete and as a coach. Talk about this quarter-century run of success, and how it feels to have been a conference champion at Gustavus as both a player and coach.

VALENTINI: It's an honor, and something that we do not take for granted. The MIAC continues to get stronger, and this run continues to mean a great deal to our present team and our entire GAC tennis family. The first person that comes to mind when I think about the stretch is Coach [Steve] Wilkinson.  What he built here is truly remarkable and we're all blessed to be a part of it. The second thing that comes to mind is the amount of contributions from so many guys that go in to making these titles possible. It's truly remarkable to think about how many players have contributed to this success over the past 25 years. It's extremely special to be a part of it.  
The 2013 Gustavus MIAC Championship Team
MIAC: You lose a few key players but will bring back a lot of talent next year ... what's next for Gustavus men's tennis?

VALENTINI: It's very early to speculate. We have a long way to go to figure out what next year's group will be. We've graduated two guys in Donkena and Johnson who were not only great leaders, but fixtures in our top lineup for four years. Replacing their talent is one challenge, but replacing the experience and leadership they bring is an even greater challenge.

We are fortunate to have a number of guys coming back who understand who we are and how we go about things.  We'll rely heavily on our senior class as well as contributions from some of our young guys.  It will be exciting to see who steps up and how.  I'm confident that we'll come together as a group as guys grow into new roles while continuing to focus on our team's values.  We're looking forward to very challenging and exciting 2013-14.  

MIAC: Thanks to Coach Valentini for taking the time to shine some additional light on his team's remarkable season, and how it fits into an amazing historical picture at Gustavus, and in the MIAC. Continue to follow the MIAC Media Blog throughout the summer as we catch up with the MIAC's spring championship coaches. This summer, the blog also plans a significant look back at the 2012-13 season, as well as a look ahead to 2013-14.

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