In the competitive sports world, the month of March is usually reserved for madness, and that plays right into the College of Staten Island men’s tennis team, and their ability to get outside and get their season underway.  That will all change this weekend, when the Dolphins skip town for the Spring Break Tennis regimen in sunny Orlando, Florida.  There, the team will take on a trio of talented squads before returning to Staten Island with the optimistic hopes of getting the rest of their season underway.  Last year’s installment progressed all the way to the CUNYAC Championship, and according to Head Coach Paul Ricciardi, the focus is still set squarely on the CUNYAC’s top prize.

“We hope to put ourselves in contention for a championship,” tells Ricciardi, whose team fell to Baruch College in last year’s Final, 5-1, in a match that was much closer than the final score would indicate.  “Our focus will be on improvement.  We have a tight team that works hard together and although it’s a short season, we hope to progress enough to get to that Final match and win it.”

To do that the Dolphins will have to offset the losses of key components from last year’s squad.  Senior Nick Zikos contemplated a return to the courts as a grad student but will be a tough loss at the top spot as will Hector Molina, an expected force near the top of the lineup, who also will not return.  The losses will shake up the team, especially near the top of the order, but CSI does still have a healthy contingent of returners, with five expected in the starting lineup.  For Ricciardi that means a heavy spotlight will be put on his returning core.

“Despite losing key members from last year the team has done a great job of putting the past in the past and going forward,” tells Ricciardi, who was quick to acknowledge senior captain Daniel Ursomanno and sophomore dynamo Timur Shamuradov as being key cogs to the CSI wheel this year.  “We can’t control who we aren’t, only who we are, and our roster is putting in a lot of effort to make up the ground we need to in order to stay at the top of the conference.”

Ricciardi knows that the learning curve should be on full display this year.  The head coach is looking for players like Austin Kapetanakis, James Chuenpratum, and Ed Ruffe to assume blossoming roles.

“We have players on this team who not only have the potential to play very good tennis, but who can also be great leaders as well,” Ricciardi said.  “There is no question that our team has a lot of character and that veteran leadership is certainly one of our major strengths.”

While the experience certainly helps, Ricciardi is anxious to see his new faces perform as well.  The roster features a pair of CUNYAC Champion swimmers on it as well, including Timur Rakhimov and freshman Chris Pinto, who Ricciardi hopes to factor in as an everyday starter.

Perhaps more than anything however, Ricciardi is looking forward to winning the battle against Mother Nature.  He knows the early-season trip to Florida will do wonders to the physical and mental preparation the Dolphins will need for the weeks ahead.

“I am never satisfied with the amount of practice we can get in before the season, and with the weather being as bad as it has been, it is going to be a blessing to be outside playing tennis,” Ricciardi explained.  “Participating in this trip really helps us build the team concept, and I feel it will give our new faces a sense of what is to come and the rigorous demands the season takes from you.”

When it all adds up, Ricciardi is hoping for a championship performance this year.  He hopes that the team will use its strengths in doubles to set the tone for matches, while mental toughness and conditioning playing a huge part in singles play, where CSI was very heavy near the top of the order a year ago, piling up the victories.

“Losing the championship left a bad taste in our mouth and we have a lot of guys who were a part of that team back and looking to overturn those feelings.  That, and seeing our women’s team win a championship for the first time since 1999 this fall, really has the fire burning in us,” he said.  “We may not have the talent to win matches 9-0 this year, but every member of this team knows we can beat anyone if we leave everything out there on the courts when we play.”

Ricciardi is not one to make bold predictions, and he will skip the championship guarantees this year.  Rather, Ricciardi feels that if the team makes good on its call for improvement, beginning in Florida, then the wins will take care of themselves, and perhaps a trophy will be awaiting come early May.

“Nothing would make me happier than to win a title, because that’s the goal every year,” Ricciardi said.  “What’s most important however is that we give everything that we have for one-another and for ourselves, improving with each match.  I think if we can do that successfully, this team will appreciate whatever it accomplishes this season.”

CSI’s first match will be with Coe College on Friday afternoon after touching down in Florida Thursday.  The team returns to Staten Island after the three-match swing, and will open up the home portion of its schedule on March 20 against City College of New York at the CSI Tennis Center.  By then, the Dolphins will have hoped to have gotten plenty of work in on it’s now snow-lined courts.