Men’s tennis overcomes hurdles to achieve program’s best-ever season


Travis Bell/Big East

DePaul junior Vito Tonejc fists pumps after winning a point during the 2021 Big East Tournament.

Over a year ago, college athletes in spring sports had their seasons cut short because of growing concerns surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic. For those seniors, at the time, it seemed like the end of their college careers, with no chance to compete for a championship one last time. 

Unless the NCAA acted to pass a special exemption for seniors to have the opportunity to stay in school an extra year, the last memory for those athletes would have been finding out their 2020 season was ending prematurely. 

Two weeks after the Big East canceled the remainder of its spring sports schedule, the NCAA announced on March 30, 2020 that it was granting an additional season of eligibility for all spring-sport athletes, including seniors. That’s when Luke Wassenaar and his teammates on the DePaul men’s tennis team decided to give it one more ride.

“I remember like texting each other in the group after we heard we had an extra year of eligibility for the guys,” Wassenaar said. “From that moment on, everyone was like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it, let’s ride, we are going to go for it [the Big East championship] one more time and see if we can do it together.’”

In total, four seniors from the 2020 team decided to accept the extra year of eligibility and return to DePaul for one more season: Christopher Casati, Boris Spanjaard, Fran Tonejc and Tamas Zador. 

All four players were part of the 2018 squad that lost to Marquette in the Big East championship. In 2019, DePaul lost in the semifinals, 4-0, against St. John’s.

Before the 2020 season was cut short, the Blue Demons won three consecutive matches and were getting close to facing conference opposition. 

“I think we were very fortunate to come back and I think everyone was in the same line, we wanted to do it one more time because last year wasn’t really a season,” Spanjaard said. “We all felt great, but we couldn’t finish it. So, I think it was just amazing to hear that we were able to come back.”  

Agreeing to come back for one more season was one side of the equation. The other side involved a process no athlete or coach had ever been a part of before: following strict Covid-19 protocols. That meant weekly testing, wearing masks, taking extra precautions and letting go of your normal routine. 

Certain sacrifices had to be made in order to stay healthy and fit to play. For the men’s tennis team, certain bonding experiences were no longer deemed safe, especially when on the road. 

“You just can’t do things that you want to do — you can’t hang out with your friends, you can’t go out for dinner,” DePaul head coach Matt Brothers said. “These guys really had to make a lot of sacrifices and maintain a bubble, weekly Covid testing. Things that really make us who we are — like time together on the road, in restaurants, in hotels — wasn’t really the norm for us.”

Most programs, if not all, around the country had to adhere to strict Covid-19 protocols throughout the past eight months. For some teams, especially with a younger roster, there have been fewer chances to build chemistry. DePaul, on the other hand, already had a roster filled with a majority of upperclassmen. 

DePaul’s 2021 schedule featured numerous road trips and matches against either ranked teams or perennial NCAA Tournament programs. The Blue Demons went 12-6 in the regular season, including a 3-1 record against the Big East.  

But the big test came in the conference tournament and whether this group of players could get past the final hurdle. 

“We all felt that last year was going to be our year, that’s what was so disappointing about having the [2020] season cut short,” Brothers said. “That confidence has been there for a long time, [it was] just about when we were going to get the opportunity to compete for it again.”

Brothers’ team and those four returning seniors got one more chance to make history by winning DePaul’s first Big East men’s championship. The first two rounds went by smoothly for DePaul, who defeated Georgetown and Butler without losing a single point. 

The championship round, however, was a stiff test. DePaul, the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, received St. John’s strongest effort — which almost led to heartbreak for Brothers’ team. In the final match, Wassenaar was down three match points before he stormed back to clinch the championship point for the Blue Demons. 

I won my serve on 4-5, with four huge serves, and from that moment on you felt like the momentum switching a lot, their players were a lot calmer on the sidelines,” Wassenaar said. “After, I saw they were with their hands on their heads and they were like, ‘What was this.’ And our guys were just going crazy, and that’s kind of what helped me through it as well. I still get goosebumps thinking about that.”

Fourteen months ago, it seemed like this group of players played their final match together — a 7-0 victory over Wright State on March 8, 2020. At the time, it didn’t seem possible that they would be standing as Big East champions and NCAA Tournament qualifiers a year later. 

But a group that came up short in 2018 got its chance again three years later. This time, DePaul seized the opportunity.

“We did it,” Spanjaard said. “It’s just amazing.”