There is a palpable energy that can be felt throughout Stevens Tennis Center on men’s tennis match days. It’s easy to become lost amongst the chaos of six ongoing matches and a din of screams, grunts and celebration between up to two dozen athletes at a time.
But Jonas Piibor remains resolute. Arms crossed, he drifts from court to court, but his intense gaze never wavers. His eyes focus in on his athletes as they dart up and down the court. He shifts his head from side to side, analyzing every movement: every volley, every groundstroke, every serve.
His expression is similarly stoic. He does not smile, but he doesn’t express any frustration either. Beyond some claps and a nod, you wouldn’t be able to tell the outcome of a match by looking at his face. He is keyed in.
“I have a very passionate coaching style,” he said. “I’m engaged, I bring a lot of energy. I think it’s rubbing off on the players.”
Piibor is in his first year as Gonzaga’s men’s tennis head coach, following a 10-year stint as associate head coach at University of Oregon. He has been charged with rebuilding a program that has never made the NCAA Tournament in a tough tennis league.
“Obviously, coming out of such a reputable program, I think we had a lot of faith in his coaching ability, so it was easy for us to buy in,” said senior Ruadhan O’Sullivan, who finished last season on the All-West Coast Conference second team for both singles and doubles.
During those 10 seasons at Oregon, the Ducks became a stronghold in the ITA rankings, with a 153-96 record culminating in two top-50 finishes in as many years before his departure. Piibor elaborated about the transition from a power-conference school with a large budget for sports to building with a smaller program like GU.
“Things are done differently here — It’s been an adjustment for everyone,” he said. “I think that where we are right now, we’ve come a long a way moving into the future.”
In just one year, the immediate improvement has been dramatic. Last season, the team was 3-6, in a three-way tie for fifth place in the conference. This season, after a win over Saint Mary’s last weekend, GU finds itself second in the WCC with a 6-2 conference record. The shift has led to changing goals throughout the season for the squad.
“Our original goal was just making the conference tournament,” said Vincent Rettke, a junior with the team’s best overall record in singles last year at 20-9. “Now that we’ve done that, we realized we can do a lot more. I think now the goal for us is making the NCAA tournament, which is definitely possible.”
Piibor simply shrugged at his team’s success. He’s not fixated on wins or losses.
“We don’t talk a lot about results,” Piibor said. “We talk more about how we go about each day getting better in all areas of life.”
“We don’t stop,” he added. “There’s no ceiling for us.”
Whether Piibor concerns himself with the numbers or not, success on the court always seems to follow him regardless.
After growing up playing on the amateur circuit in Sweden, he played collegiately at Indiana State University, leading the Sycamores to three straight NCAA tournaments in four years. He was a two-time NCAA Individual Championship qualifier in 2000 and 2001, and over the course of his career was ranked 28th nationally in singles and 50th in doubles.
Part of this success, naturally, is owed to Piibor’s mentality. With him, every little thing counts.
“We have a lot more focus this year,” Rettke said. “Whether it’s academics, or sleeping, or practice, our daily routine. Everything just revolves around tennis. You get good grades and you do everything right so that you can play tennis.”
Piibor spoke of a specific vision he has for his program in the coming years, one in which GU becomes a premier tennis program that can make the NCAA tournament and challenge to win the conference every year.
“I see a big upswing coming,” Rettke said. “One thing that we halfway joke about with each other is that in five years, Gonzaga will be a top-20 tennis school, and we’ll be like, ‘oh yeah, we played for them.”
That transition is well underway. Piibor has already landed the 20th-ranked recruiting class in the nation for next season, the highest in both GU and WCC history.
Eric Hadigian, the program’s first five-star blue chip recruit, will be joined by four-star Brandon Park and international prospects Oliver Andersson of Sweden and Matthew Hollingworth of Great Britain next fall.
But for this year, he is coaching a team full of athletes he did not recruit. It’s a unique position that’s one of the realities of reorienting a program to a new coach.
“I really enjoy these guys,” said Piibor. “They didn’t choose me, but I chose them, so to speak.”
“He just sort of got stuck with us, I suppose,” O’Sullivan said with a laugh. “But I think for everyone on the team the most important factor was buying in and adapting to different circumstances.”
It’s apparent that his team has bought in, for both this season and those to come.
“I think [the program] is just going to continue to be more successful,” O’Sullivan said. “Just the type of person he is — he’s really committed to everything that he does, whether it’s recruiting, or out on the court, or speaking to people in the training room.
He really opens up the opportunities for athletes to get the most out of themselves.”
Connor Gilbert is a staff writer.