Flagler tennis sizzling toward key Peach Belt Conference stretch

The respite, however short it was, is over for the Flagler College tennis programs. Classes are back in session and the streaking Saints will have a test of their own this weekend with a trio of road matches.


When the next Oracle/Intercollegiate Tennis Association rankings are released on Wednesday, the women’s and men’s team will almost assuredly be ranked. The Saints women (12-1, 5-0) are currently 12th and sport a 10-match winning streak. Thomas Hipp’s men’s team (11-2, 3-0) was ranked 31st in the most recent poll and have also won 10 straight.

Both squads will be on the road this weekend for a trio of Peach Belt Conference contests. Friday, the Saints will face Columbus State, make the 60-mile trek to face Georgia Southwestern on Saturday and conclude its Peach State slate with a Sunday contest against Georgia College.

“This weekend is going to be very important because it’s going to be three Peach Belt Conference opponents,” Hipp said. “Hopefully, we can win two out of those three. That would be great.”

Hipp was the head coach of both the women’s and men’s program for the 2015 and 2016 seasons. In July 2016, Hipp’s assistant for both teams, Rodrigo Puebla, was named the head coach of the women’s program. The move meant both men have had more time to devote to their respective programs as well as tailor their coaching and messages.

“For us, it’s like our rival,” said Puebla, a Columbus State graduate, about a Cougars program that knocked the Saints out of the 2016 NCAA tournament. “We have been looking forward to this match as soon as the schedule came out.”

“To me, Columbus State, with the facilities they have, (head coach) Evan (Isaacs) has a great program — this year is the best team they have had. I told the girls ‘We had plenty of chances with the team we had.’ I believe we are a little stronger in singles than we were last year.”

The Saints’ Nos. 2, 3 and 5 singles players, Mary Jo Nanti, Kelly Burge and sophomore Felicitas Runkel have won all five of their conference singles matches this spring. Friday, Burge will face either Beatriz Lopez or Camila Tobar, both of whom are a perfect 8-0 on the season.

Columbus State, ranked No. 8 in women’s tennis and No. 6 on the men’s side, will present a challenge. That is what excites Saints sophomore No. 1 Lukas Storck.

“It will be a key point in the season,” Storck said. “We had a couple matches over spring break, which were not too hard. We could change a little bit of the lineup to figure out what was best and the freshmen got some matches. This weekend, we have to step up our focus and present everything we have on the court, even though we play tough teams. Even though Saturday’s opponent is not supposed to be as tough as other teams, we have to take every team seriously to get the win.”

Storck was 12-10 in singles as a freshman in 2016 and part of one of the Southeast Region’s best doubles tandems with Kevin Gonzalez. In addition to his 7-4 mark in singles play, Storck has partnered with freshman Felipe Carvalho on the doubles side and posted an 8-3 mark.

Storck said a win in No. 1 doubles — which is played before the singles matches — has a way of infusing belief throughout the entire team. The sophomore from Frankfurt, Germany said that when he and Carvalho play their best, they believe they can beat anyone in Division II.

“I’m very impressed with how he moved in with me in doubles and how we immediately beat teams together,” Storck said. “I’m glad I could help him … on the doubles court and get victories. … I’m really proud of him in that way, because as a freshman it’s not easy.”

Storck and Carvalho are two members of an unofficial United Nations assembly that represents Flagler tennis. Hipp, a German, and Puebla, a Chilean, together coach athletes from England, Poland, Australia, Guatemala, Italy, Sweden, Brazil, Bolivia, France and New Zealand.

When asked how he and Hipp find players from across the continents that are willing to come to a Division II program in St. Augustine, Florida, Puebla referenced an answer University of Connecticut women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma gave when asked about body language during a recent press conference. Auriemma’s two-minute soliloquy has since gone viral.

“So recruiting kids that are really upbeat and loving life and love the game and have this tremendous appreciation for when their teammates do something well, that’s hard,” Auriemma said. “It’s really hard.”

Puebla is the first to note he is not Auriemma’s coaching equal; but, both are currently pushing the right buttons to evoke results.

Flagler’s 10-match winning streak is the second-longest on the women’s side in the program’s 10 years as a Division II program. While the men have also won 10 in a row, their steak may be more impressive because the program has only won 12 matches in a Division II season once and been forced to eke out its three conference victories by 5-4 scores.

“I’m more nervous watching my teammates in the clincher, than when it’s (me) on the court,” Storck said. “So far, it’s great. The team is super great. It’s so much fun to be in these situations because that’s the biggest reason why we play the sport.”