By Teddy Rydquist
Leader Staff Writer
For the first time in the program’s five-year history, the Oxford Wildcats boys’ tennis team will enter a season as the defending league champion.
Boasting six All-Oakland Activities Association (OAA) Blue Division selections, the team posted a flawless 5-0 record in league play in 2019.
Ryan Ruzziconi, the only coach the program has ever known, is tasked with replacing three of these All-League players, but returns three, as well, in the form of junior Chase Maier, and seniors Gabe Smith and Silas VonAllmen.
“We have about eight returning players, so, that helps lessen the loss of a lot of seniors last year, who were pretty integral to the team,” Ruzziconi shared.
“That will help with the backfilling of the four varsity spots, which will be the issue over the next couple of weeks.”
Beginning practice on August 12, the earliest date allowable by the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA), the Wildcats have a 12-day period to acclimate to this new season, as they are set to begin match play on Monday, August 24 with a road tilt against the Brandon Blackhawks, a Flint Metro League school.
The team is competing in the OAA Blue again, with the same other five schools as a year ago, the Avondale Yellowjackets, Farmington Falcons, Ferndale, Royal Oak Ravens, and Southfield A&T Warriors.
“I think, right now, it’s probably going to be between Royal Oak and Farmington,” Ruzziconi said of his projection for the top competition in the division.
“Farmington was good and young last year, and Royal Oak, they’re always a good program, but they have a couple of good freshmen coming in. Based on what I know of who’s coming back, those would be the two teams that I would say will be our toughest challenges.”
Maier, Smith, and VonAllmen headline the list of returnees, but Ruzziconi has some additional depth who will be given the opportunity to play larger roles this year, too.
“(Seniors) Nolan Kutchey and Zach Buchanan, they were on varsity last year, as well as Alex Robb,” he pointed out.
“Our two sophomores who straddled the line between junior varsity and varsity last year were Caiden Romine and Andrew Ehardt.”
After opening the campaign against Brandon, Oxford will battle the Saginaw Valley League’s Davison Cardinals in their home-opener on Thursday, August 27. Five days later, on Tuesday, September 1, the team will hit the road again to square off with the Macomb Area Conference’s Romeo Bulldogs.
“In Michigan, you have about an eight-week window to fit all these matches in,” Ruzziconi said of the schedule and Mother Nature with a laugh.
“I would love to have about a two, two-and-a-half-week window to roll into practice, but in Michigan, you just don’t have that choice. That’s why, like I tell our players, our non-conference matches are important, but we want to be rolling when we hit conference play.
“The first couple of matches, we know they’re going to struggle, we know they’re going to be rusty, there’s going to be some wins and losses in there, and you live with it because they have to get up to speed.”
Taking the program from brand new to a league champion, Ruzziconi’s work was recognized at the collegiate level, as well. In January, he was named the head coach of the women’s tennis program at Saginaw Valley State University (SVSU) in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (GLIAC).
Girls’ tennis is a spring sport at the high school level, but in college, women’s tennis occurs in the fall, meaning Ruzziconi planned to pull double duty between Oxford and the SVSU Cardinals in 2020.
However, on August 12, the GLIAC suspended all fall sports for their member institutions through January 1, 2021, freeing Ruzziconi up to devote his usual time commitment to the Wildcats.
Oxford’s home clash with the rival Lake Orion Dragons, initially scheduled for August 20, was rescheduled for Wednesday, September 16, with 4 p.m. still serving as the start time. This will be the final leg of a three-match homestand, with the Blue Water Area League’s Almont Raiders and Royal Oak coming to town on September 9 and 10, respectively.
By Teddy Rydquist