LAWRENCEVILLE — Chase Hodges isn’t hedging his bets.
He’ll tell you, the goal of the Georgia Gwinnett College tennis teams is to win the national championship.
In only the second year of the program’s existence — and the first year the Grizzlies are eligible for the postseason — he believes the men and women both have a legitimate shot at playing for the NAIA title.
“Our goal, believe it or not, is to win the national championship,” Hodges said. “And it’s definitely realistic. It’s not to say if we fall short of that, the season is a disappointment, but that’s our expectation, that’s our goal and it’s possible.
“I know there are a lot of good teams out there, on the men and women’s sides, that are going to be tough to beat. But we feel like on any given day, we can take those teams out. It’ll be a lot of fun.”
The women start their season today at 2 p.m., hosting Clayton State in Lawrenceville.
The program got a big infusion of talent just a few weeks ago with the addition of four freshmen, all with a junior pedigree and international experience. Two came from Argentina — Ines Costamagna and Chiara Di Salvo Roque — and two Dutch players, Valeria Podda and Helena Korompis.
“In tennis it’s a little different that other sports in that you add players in January,” Hodges said. “We added four, which is huge, to the women’s program. All four could potentially be in our top six.
“If I would have sat down with you six months ago, I would have felt pretty good about our team. You never really count them until they get off the plane, but now that they’re here, we definitely feel that, like the men, they’re going to be able to compete for a national championship.”
Senior Paloma Cortina is 43rd in the ITA’s NAIA singles rankings, while the doubles pair of sophomores Victoria Svensson and Rocio Fernandez is 20th.
In the South Region rankings, Cortina is 17th in singles, while Svensson comes in two spots later at 19th after both made the round of 16 at the ITA Regionals in September. Svensson and Fernandez, who made a semifinal doubles run at the ITA Regionals, are ninth in the South Region.
Senior Joyce Oliveira, who went 13-3 a year ago, also returns for GGC. Svensson and freshmen Judith van Fraaijenhoven and Luma Schwab joined the squad before the fall individual season.
Junior Heather Humphrey and freshman Daria Iurchenko, who redshirted in 2013, will make their first appearances.
Hodges is expecting stiff competition among all 12 of his women’s players.
“You play your top six singles,” Hodges said. “What people don’t understand is, yeah, it’s nice to have a great No. 1, but that No. 1 point counts just as much the No. 6. If you don’t have players that can win at 4, 5 and 6, you’re not going to be successful
“Last year, depth was our problem. This year, that’s 100 percent not going to be a problem. It might be our strength.”
The men’s season gets started 2 p.m. Wednesday with a home match against Dalton State. It’s the beginning of an extremely challenging schedule which features 19 total matches against many of the nation’s top programs at all levels.
The Grizzlies have NAIA No. 6 Xavier (La.), No. 13 Belhaven and No. 15 William Carey on the schedule. They also will face NCAA Division II No. 2 Armstrong Atlantic, three Division III top-10 teams, and Division I foes Tennessee Tech and South Carolina State.
“From an NAIA standpoint, we’re playing the best teams in the country,” Hodges said. “It’s going to allow us an opportunity to be ranked.
“But ultimately it all comes down to April, which will be our AII conference tournament.”
The men are coming off an impressive fall schedule which led, in part, to a spring preseason No. 5 national ranking.
GGC produced three players in the ITA top 50 singles rankings and one pair in the top 25 doubles rankings, which were released in November based upon fall individual results.
In the South region rankings, sophomore Erik Moberg stands fourth, while senior Bruno Tiberti is ninth and sophomore Evgeny Silitski is 13th.
All of Hodges’ top players from last year’s inaugural squad, which went 11-1, return again in 2014.
Moberg (21-2 combined singles and doubles record in 2013), sophomore Luke Morland (24-0), sophomore Tony Kostadinov (21-3) and senior Hernan Hatem (20-2) each won at least 20 combined matches in the 2013 team season.
“Now heading into 2014, we’re extremely excited,” Hodges said. “We feel we have a team we feel is going to be very competitive nationally.”
The returning group is joined by top newcomers like Tiberti, who captured the 2012 NAIA national team championship for Oklahoma Christian University with a victory at No. 1 singles. Sophomore Mark Verryth, a former Junior Davis Cup champion in Australia, brings power to the lineup while freshman Connor Clements, one of the Southeast’s most highly-touted recruits, adds another weapon to the arsenal. Clements grew up in South Carolina, but was born in Lawrenceville.
Sophomore Matias Hatem, the 2012 Colonial Athletic Association Rookie of the Year at Division I Georgia State, will play in his first team season as a Grizzly.
Additional returning players include senior Taylor Hardy (8-3) and sophomores Aaron Harris (5-3) and Peter Bodnar (1-0). Freshman Nathan de Veer of the Netherlands is welcomed into the fold in 2014.