Last year, Gonzaga men’s tennis didn’t have a single true freshman on its roster, and it wasn’t a coincidence. With a coaching staff renovated with new personnel consisting of head coach Jonas Piibor and assistant coach Cesar Vargas, the team had difficulty recruiting new players to the program.
That freshman-less team, who had most of the same players from a year before, when the team finished sixth in the West Coast Conference, came in second in 2019 after being projected to finish eighth.
“That’s just unheard of, like I’ve never seen anything like that," said transfer sophomore Theo McDonald.
A sharp upward swing for a program is bound to generate some interest from higher level prospects, and it did.
This year’s team has four freshmen and a sophomore transfer in McDonald. These newest additions are some of the most promising in the program’s history. Earlier this year, tennisrecruiting.net ranked Gonzaga’s current freshman class as the No. 24 recruiting class in the country and No. 3 among midmajor programs.
The top recruit in this year’s class is also the highest-ranked recruit to ever don the Bulldog uniform for men’s tennis.
Eric Hadigian, of Sacramento, California, is a five-star recruit and one of the top-25 players in his national class out of high school. Tennis Recruiting Network ranked him as the ninth-best prospect in his class.
As such a highly-touted recruit, Hadigian had a number of options for where he could continue his academic and athletic endeavors. He chose GU because of what the tennis program is trying to build.
“I wanted to go to a program that’s on its way up like Gonzaga is," Hadigian said. "[The coaches] really emphasized putting in hard work and that’s the only way we’ll reach our very high goals. The discipline that this team has both off the court as well as on the court, how we all know how much work we have to put in and for us all to be on the same page with work ethic is really unique.”
Hadigian said that another draw for him at GU was the high level of competition that he would be facing with his teammates. Both the upperclassmen on the team as well as the players in his class provide a solid challenge that will only help him improve his skills.
His most frequent competitor to this point has been his roommate, fellow freshman Oliver Andersson.
“With Eric and I especially, it’s a competition every time,” Andersson said. “We’ve had a couple of practice matches against each other which have been fun, and since Eric and I take some classes together, we compete in those as well. So it’s always a competition.”
Andersson, of Huddinge, Sweden, also enters GU with quite the resume, ranked as the ninth-best under-18 player in Sweden last year. In 2018, he won both the singles and doubles competition in the Internation Tennis Federation's Kramfors Junior Challenge. In the national tournament, he finished third in the singles competition and second in doubles play.
Andersson admits that he had never heard of GU until he began speaking with Piibor, who is also Swedish. But once Andersson started looking into GU's developing tennis program and more intimate learning environment, he saw the choice to attend as a no-brainer.
“[Piibor] told me that he’s going to build something big here which he also showed by last year’s results. And coach told me that he wanted me to be a part of that journey,” Andersson said. “Being a smaller school where student athletes have a lot of academic resources is good for me because I didn’t want to go to a bigger school where you’re one of many, compared to here where even in classes, you’re an individual. It was a good combination of both tennis and academics.”
Andersson wasn’t the only tennis player in this freshman class willing to trek across oceans to become a Bulldog. Freshman Mathew Hollingworth journeyed from Great Britain to play for Piibor.
“Oliver and I came from overseas and that naturally brings its own difficulties at the start,” Hollingworth said. “But this team has been with us every step of the way and we’re definitely getting adjusted to America.”
Hollingworth comes from a well-credentialed tennis background in his home country as well. According to gozags.com, Hollingworth was at one time ranked as the best under-18 player in Great Britain last year, as well as being ranked as high as 23rd in the overall men’s division in his country.
He was the champion in a 2018 Scottish National British Tour event in singles and finished in second place in doubles during the same event. He also led his academy, the Merchiston Castle School, to its first title at the British National School event.
Continuing to play tennis at a higher level in a team-oriented environment is not only what drew Hollingworth to come play United States collegiate tennis, but to play at GU.
“I think college tennis is unique ... It’s one of the only times that tennis is played with a proper team," Hollingworth said. "Even if you go to an academy in Britain, you’re still competing as an individual.
“Here, we’re all competing together toward one common goal and I think that’s really special and a great thing to be a part of ... it's great to have teammates around you."
To close out this year’s freshman class, the Bulldogs snagged Brandon Park, who they signed late in the recruiting process. Park announced his commitment to GU in May.
Park is a four-star recruit from Stockdale High School in Bakersfield, California, and was ranked as the 110th best player in his class last year according to tennisrecruiting.net. His phenomenal sophomore season in high school awarded him with the title of best player in his county, and he showed consistent signs of success en route to high school league titles in 2016, 2017 and 2018.
"He's tenacious. He loves competition, and he's one of the best fighters that I've ever had,” Park’s high school coach Dave Hillestad said to The Bakersfield Californian in 2017. “He doesn't give up on any points. Sometimes you can't coach kids to have the heart that he does."
Piibor believes that he’s found that heart, among other unquantifiable traits, with every new face that he’s brought to GU this year.
“I saw a lot of the character behind these new guys that they possess," Piibor said. "High academics, being well-traveled and having been away from home before, pretty much your understanding of what this program is about. So for me, if you put that together with talent, then that’s what we’re looking for and if you’re looking at that, then I’d say we have a pretty solid class.”