Setting his squad

Assembling an entire Division I tennis team from scratch in less than one year is a daunting challenge, but head coach Steven Ascher is proving he is the right man for the job at Portland State.

Assembling an entire Division I tennis team from scratch in less than one year is a daunting challenge, but head coach Steven Ascher is proving he is the right man for the job at Portland State.

Ascher, a native Portlander, has been on a mission rebuilding the newly reinstated tennis team since his hiring 10 months ago. The team will compete in the Big Sky Conference during the 2007-08 season for the first time in five years, and Ascher has been working feverishly to ensure the Vikings are prepared.

“Steve’s energy level has been great,” said athletic director Michael “Torre” Chisholm. “He really seems thrilled with the opportunity to coach at Portland State, and his enthusiasm has been infectious. He really wants to will it to work here.”

With a completely blank roster upon his arrival, Ascher’s first line of business was to hit the recruiting trail, hoping to capture talented players and bring them back to the South Park Blocks.

Scouring several states–Oregon, Washington, California, Utah, Arizona and Oklahoma–Ascher has signed 15 players, eight women and seven men, to a national letter of intent thus far. The roster capacity is slated to be 16 players, meaning Ascher still needs one more male recruit to round out his team. All eight women will be freshmen once they hit the court next year, but three junior college transfers have been secured on the men’s side.

“The overall talent of our recruits is pretty high,” Ascher said. “Each player is coming out of his or her respective region with a strong background, and most have had regional, if not national, experience on the junior tournament scene. So it’s really a solid group.”

A smooth backhand, forceful forehand and speedy serve may headline a gifted player’s skills repertoire, but those aren’t the only characteristics the Vikings’ head coach is seeking in recruits. Ascher, who frequented tennis courts as a student athlete at Sunset High School and the University of Oregon, is looking beyond on-court antics to select the best student athletes to don the Viking green and black.

“First and foremost, I’m looking for character. Starting a new program, we are laying a foundation, so character has been one of the most essential traits. Also, players are coming in with a high academic standard. Most have above a 3.5 cumulative GPA coming out of high school,” Ascher said. “I also want students with a passion for the game–those willing to come here and take their game to the next level.”

Chisholm said Ascher’s ability to recruit quality athletes is even more impressive because it has been a solitary effort. Without current players to entertain visiting athletes or a squad to showcase, Ascher, who expects to have an assistant coach soon, has been busily writing personal letters, giving campus tours and wooing prospective recruits solely with words of hope.

“Steve has done a heck of a job assembling a great recruiting group,” Chisholm said. “Just look at some of the talented players he has recruited in his first year and you will see he has done a miraculous job.”

Attracting fans will be a point of emphasis–Portland State hasn’t competed in tennis since discontinuing the team for financial reasons after the 2002 season. Last year, Big Sky Conference eligibility requirements forced Viking athletics to reinstate the program following a five-year absence.

“We really need to connect with the community, and Portland is a wonderful tennis community with many clubs. So we should capitalize on that to build relationships with players and clubs around Portland,” Chisholm said. “Although I don’t know of many schools where students are part of a large, active tennis fan base, but a few fans can really make a difference.”

Portland State will play home matches at University of Portland tennis facilities, though Tualatin Hills will host the Viking men’s fall tournament Sept. 28-30. Taking place during the first week of fall term, the event will showcase the new team as well as attempt to spur excitement from Viking fans looking for a sneak peak prior to the upcoming season.

Even with a roster saturated with freshmen and in the first year following reinstatement, Ascher feels his team can contend in a competitive Big Sky Conference.

“I am definitely optimistic about our chances next year. It’s just a matter of how quickly we can get the players to develop and transition from the junior to college level,” Ascher said. “I think the sky is the limit.”