Josh Molino’s quest to stage an indoor tennis championship for NAIA-member schools is about to come to fruition.
The inaugural Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) NAIA National Team Indoor Championships will be played Feb. 3-5 at Overland Park Racquet Club in Overland Park – with Kansas Wesleyan the host institution and Molino the tournament director.
It will be the culmination of a three-plus year endeavor for Molino, who started formulating the concept with others in 2019. The process, though, took longer than anyone anticipated.
“This is a collaboration of NAIA coaches and the network that we built at Wesleyan through me being at the national championships, working on the tournament committee and with the USTA (United States Tennis Association) and the Missouri Valley (Association),” said Molino, who is in his fifth season as coach at KWU. “We networked with a lot of coaches and we had the idea.”
Planning, though, came to an abrupt halt along with everything else in 2020 with the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Once the pandemic eased, the ITA Operating Committee accepted bids and voted on a host institution last year – Wesleyan was the choice for the first three years of the event, largely because of Molino and KWU’s efforts.
“Wesleyan backed us all the way and we felt that we could produce a really nice event,” he said. “We’ve gotten the backing of boosters and some of our administration and our athletic department.”
Planners had a ready-made blueprint for the event.
“(NCAA) Divisions I, II and III already put the bones together on what it would look like,” Molino said. “We took their format, the things that they did well and the things that maybe they’re lacking and put an idea together.
“How to host, what’s a central location and what’s affordable – the cost for the NAIA schools is the big thing. We talked about what it would look like, how many teams, how many nights (lodging).”
Finding a suitable facility was job one, and Overland Park Racquet Club with its 14 indoor courts seemed ideal for the 16 men’s and women’s teams that will compete in the event.
“It’s the host site for the Boys 16s and 18s USTA National Indoor,” Molino said.
“They’ve got a great history of hosting events. The location is great – 92nd and Metcalf is in that hub with beautiful hotels and restaurants.
“It’s a central location for teams around the country. Easy fly and easy drive and a facility that’s used to hosting national championships. We felt that was the best place to be.”
Formatting the tournament was easy, according to Molino. Participants were chosen according to the final team standings of the 2022 NAIA national championships – the top seven receiving invitations and the wild card playing three matches in a bracketed competition.
“It’s a regular college format, a dual that’s head-to-head with three doubles and six singles matches,” Molino said. “The ITA created the criteria of who would play, and the host school gets the wildcard. We’ll actually be the first indoor championship to have both genders at the same site on the same weekend.”
Both KWU teams have daunting tasks in their first matches against Georgia Gwinnett College, which won the NAIA men’s and women’s national championships last spring. Play begins at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 3 for both teams.
“It’s a challenge, it’s a really big challenge,” Molino said. “But for us to go to the next level, we’ve got to show that we can play and compete with those top teams.
“We want to move into that elite group, and it’s really hard if you’re not consistently qualified for the national tournament. We felt like this was a great opportunity to show who we are and what we do.”
Indoor tennis offers some challenges the outdoor game does not, according to Molino. The Coyotes practice and occasionally play matches on the two courts inside The Pines Tennis Park in Salina.
“If you’re going to be a good tennis player you’ve got to play on every surface in all the elements, but there’s something unique about playing inside in a closed environment,” he said. “It’s louder, it’s faster, the points are crucial off the serve, so it’s definitely a bigger game.”
Playing in Kansas City is an added benefit.
“We’ve got a couple guys from the Overland Park area, they’re going to see time,” Molino said. “This is a shining light for us and our alumni because there’s been a lot of people who have come through here, played here, and dedicated time.
“This is almost like that pinnacle moment for our program because it’s been a lot of work, and now, we’re at the forefront for college tennis.”
Molino will use the Indoor Nationals as a springboard to the spring semester portion of the Coyotes’ schedule.
“These should be the best three opponents that we see all year long, unless we get to Mobile (Alabama, for the NAIA tournament),” he said. “That’s not taking anything away from the (Kansas Conference) because it’s formidable. We feel really good taking up the gauntlet and then being able to work our way through the conference.”
Story by Bob Davidson