Freshmen tennis players (left) Jeremy Learner and Michael Bukhalo pose after practice on Monday, Sept. 9, 2019, at the Ulrich Tennis Courts. Bukhalo and Learner are both from the Chicago area.(Adele Hancock/B&W Staff)

Chicago area suburbs breed Lehigh tennis recruits

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Lehigh men’s tennis coach Wouter Hendrix looks to recruit players from across the nation who possess deep skill sets and can readily adapt to college-level play. In the past three years alone, the Chicago area has produced four Mountain Hawks.

Hendrix recruited two freshmen to the team this season, Jeremy Learner and Michael Bukhalo, who are both from the Chicago area. With the addition of the new recruits, almost half of the current roster is made up of players from the same area. 

Hendrix said Lehigh’s tennis program typically recruits players from the Midwest who are familiar with Lehigh’s climate, but Illinois, in general, is considered a strong area for tennis.

Because of this familiarity, many players on the team knew each other before coming to Lehigh. Learner and Bukhalo both had relationships with junior Jacob Edelchik, from Highland Park, Illinois, and sophomore Zack Elliot, from Willowbrook, Illinois, before they stepped on Lehigh’s courts. 

“I actually practiced at the same club with the same coaches as one of them, so I knew them really well,” Bukhalo said.

Learner said it can be tough for new college athletes to transition to collegiate level play, especially when they are far away from home. But both Learner and Bukhalo had the immediate advantage of knowing two players.

“It made it way easier [to integrate into the team], because I knew two people,” Learner said. “They helped me meet other people on the team.”

The tennis programs in Illinois not only introduced Learner and Bukhalo to their current teammates, but also helped prepare them to play at the collegiate level.

Learner said the tennis programs in the Chicago area emphasize teamwork in a sport that is largely based on individuality. He said the programs also helped players plan for the future. 

Bukhalo left Illinois with a few takeaways of his own.

He said the competitiveness he brought to Lehigh is invaluable because he was always competing and practicing with talented players at home.

Learner said given the familiarity, it did not take long for a strong team bond to develop.

“I think we’re all really close, even though we just met a few weeks ago,” Learner said. “We’re all seeing each other every single day and getting food afterwards, so I think we’re a pretty close team.”

The team will travel three times this fall for invitationals. The Mountain Hawks will travel to Villanova Sept. 13-15 and Saint Joseph’s Sept. 20-22. Lehigh will culminate its fall season at the ITA Regionals in New Jersey Oct. 17-21.

Learner said practices are much more challenging than they are at the high school level. A heightened level of play calls for a heightened level of fitness, and Learner said the drills are helping him achieve that.

After another demanding preseason, Hendrix said he feels confident that the players’ hard work during the offseason will translate into their match play. He also said for a group that does not travel very often, the fall season’s schedule provides ample opportunity to work on team spirit.

“I feel good about the way we’re playing,” Hendrix said. “There’s always room for improvement, but I’m excited for the season to start.”

The Mountain Hawks will play its first match of the season at Villanova from Sept. 13-15.

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