By Duane Cochran
Kyle Hoffman likes challenges.
Good thing because three years ago when he took over as head coach of Fairmont State University's tennis team he was tasked with a major one – reviving a program which had struggled to say the least in recent years.
In the four seasons prior to Hoffman's arrival at FSU, the Falcons had combined for just seven victories.
In 2015-16, Hoffman's first season, Fairmont State recorded eight wins, finished 8-15 overall and he was named the Mountain East Conference's Coach of the Year by his peers for his efforts.
That, however, was just the beginning. With a full season to recruit he landed five talented freshmen for the 2016-17 campaign and those five along with the other Falcon returners quickly served notice to the MEC that FSU men's tennis program was no longer an afterthought, but instead was going to be a force to be reckoned with.
The Falcons finished 2016-17 with an impressive 17-9 overall record, claimed a share of the Mountain East Conference's regular-season title and earned the school's first-ever NCAA Division II Atlantic Regional Ranking. The 17 victories were one shy of tying the school record for wins in a season and once again Hoffman was named the MEC Coach of the Year and also garnered Atlantic Region Coach of the Year honors.
This season Fairmont came up just short in its bid to win a second straight MEC title finishing second to West Virginia Wesleyan (15-3, 7-0). The Falcons are 12-9 overall and ended up 6-1 in the conference. FSU is fourth in the latest NCAA Division II Atlantic Regional Rankings and earned a first-round bye for the annual Mountain East Conference Tournament which begins Friday at the Brian David Fox Tennis Center in Huntington. Fairmont will begin play Saturday in the tournament against the winner of No. 3 Charleston and No. 6 Shepherd.
Fairmont is also in a pretty good position to secure the school's first-ever NCAA Division II Atlantic Regional Tournament bid. That tourney will be held April 30-May 1 at sites to be determined.
Hoffman was a standout prep player at nearby East Fairmont High School who walked on at West Virginia Wesleyan and became a major contributor to the Bobcats' success as a junior and senior. Hoffman finished his college tennis career with over 50 wins in singles and doubles competition and suffered fewer than 10 losses in his career. During his four-year career, he helped the Bobcats to a pair of conference semifinal and finals appearances and was also part of two teams that were ranked in the top 40 nationally in NCAA Division II.
"When I was looking at schools when I was a player I remember getting to the tennis facility here at Fairmont was a challenge because you had to drive right beside the football field to get to the tennis courts," Hoffman said with a laugh. "That really wasn't too appealing as a student athlete. Eventually they put the back entrance in to the courts, made some improvements to make it better for playing and recruiting and with the job being open on and off for a few years and me being a community member who followed the team, there just came a point in time where I kind of felt obligated to pitch in and help if I could. Things at my other job opened up and I felt I could contribute something positive here and do more than what they had been doing. I remember telling the administration if you want to be serious and take this program to another level I'm in. That's kind of how it all started."
One of Hoffman's first orders of business was to get his current team to re-connect with alumni who had played tennis for the Falcons. He and his team members spent several hours going through old yearbooks to get names of alumni to build a base of people to connect with.
"When I got here we really weren't even sure who our alumni were and I believe to get a program going and headed in the right direction you have to have the support of your alumni and community members," Hoffman said. "It wasn't so much that we wanted to reach out to them for financial support, which we have, but more than anything we just wanted to re-connect with them, invite them to matches and have them get to know the program again and see what we're doing. Those guys were all student-athletes at one time and they know what it's like and what our current players are going through.
"The whole process was good for our guys and I think good for our alumni. We've had more people take an interest in our program and we discovered that we have some pretty interesting and successful alumni. I also have to credit guys who were former coaches here like Dr. (Craig) White, Rod Anselene and Ken Miller. Those guys have all been very helpful and are still very supportive of the program."
Hoffman's second order of business was to up the talent level on his team which he did so by signing a recruiting class for 2016-17 that included freshmen Lucas Alves of Lins, Brazil, Guilheme Pachane of Piracicaba, Brazil, Matias Higueras of Lima, Peru, Tom Liddy of Brisbane, Australia and Dillon Early of Hoffman Estates, Ill.
Those five quickly found their way into the starting rotation and played major roles in helping FSU claim a share of its first-ever MEC regular season title and finish 17-9.
Alves and senior Micah Hornak of Morgantown were both named first-team All-Mountain East Conference, while Pachane was named second-team all-league. Alves was also honored as the MEC's Freshman of the Year.
"Looking at the class we signed for 2016-17 I remember going in and telling people (in FSU's athletic department) that I felt like we had a chance to be pretty good and I think some of them thought I was a little crazy given the fact that we hadn't had a winning season in over 10 years," said Hoffman, who also works for the United States Tennis Association. "Did I think we were going to win the conference? Not necessarily, but I didn't tell the guys that. I told them I expected that of them and to their credit they went out and got it done. That was another thing we had to do – change the mindset of the program. That took some time. To do that we basically just focused on the future and what we could control. We didn't spend time dwelling on what took place here in the past. Our guys weren't a part of that.
"With five freshmen in the lineup last year we had a lot of good days and a lot of bad days. You could tell by looking at the scores when we were on and when we were off. It's been a little of the same this year with five sophomores and a freshman basically in the lineup for us. I told the guys it comes down to going out and beating the guy across from you. You've got to hit two more balls in than he does and if you do that we're going to win a lot of matches."
Hoffman is both demanding and fair with his team. He places a huge emphasis on academics and wants to see his players graduate with degrees and go on to have successful careers in the working world. On the court he also expects his players to work hard and compete at high levels.
"We had a rough week last week," Hoffman said. "We lost a match to Wesleyan for the conference title and I'm not going to lie that hurt both for us as a team and for me on a personal level. We also lost to Bluefield State which is number one in the region. Honestly, I felt like we were in that match with Bluefield and a couple of games on a couple of courts turned on us and got away from us. I think our guys are right there and unless we do something really dumb we've set ourselves up to earn an NCAA Tournament bid which would be our first since our program competed at the NAIA level which was well over 20 years ago.
"We're making strides as a program, but I still believe we've got a lot of work to do to really get to where we need to be and to where I want to see us at. Losing hurts. Our expectations are to win. I'm a pretty competitive person. Sometimes my wife says I'm too competitive, but I don't want to finish in the middle of the pack or just be satisfied to make the tournament. I'm a big believer that if I'm going to do something or play something I want to win especially in a win or lose situation. I don't just want to be a van driver or someone who is satisfied with his team finishing second."
Fairmont's men's tennis team members mirror their coach. Before signing with the Falcons, Alves came all the way from Brazil to Fairmont State on a campus visit and says he immediately felt a connection with Hoffman.
"When I was looking at different universities during my recruiting process the difference maker in my decision to come here to Fairmont was coach Kyle," Alves said. "He's very competitive and I'm the same way. In everything I do I want to be the best. In practice I want to beat the other guys and in matches I definitely want to win. We just had a good connection between us right from the start.
"When I came here on my visit I saw a picture of a tennis player here (at the Feaster Center) on the wall (it was Fabien Mevs a former first-team all-conference player). I said when I'm done here I want my picture to be on that wall. I want to be a difference maker."
Alves, who is a 4.0 student in business administration with a double concentration in marketing and management, says being a part of the Falcons' restoration project in men's tennis has been exciting.
"We're making history here and that's exciting," Alves said. "When we're at practice every guy is out there giving his best because first and foremost coach demands that out of us and second because we all want to do good and succeed.
"When I first arrived here I wasn't sure what my role on the team would be, but since I started here I've always played No. 1 so right from the start coach trusted me and believed in me even more than I believed in myself at the time. He's done that for all of us and he's helped us become even better players. He's the difference maker. For me and likely for a lot of the other guys because we're away from our families he's like a father figure to us. He pushes us and demands a lot from us both on and off of the court, but we know he does that because he cares about us and wants us to be and do our best in every situation."
Despite the rigorous physical and mental demands of tennis, the Falcon players have all bought into Hoffman's blueprint for success for Fairmont State and say they're committed to only getting better in the future.
"Our mindset as a team is we want to be the best," Alves said. "We're still kinda young, but most of us have been together now for two seasons and we're very close both on and off of the court. We push each other all of the time to improve. We have high expectations for ourselves and I honestly believe we're only going to get better and better.
"Like coach said last week was a disappointing one for us. We lost a chance at another conference title, but now we have the MEC Tournament to play in and our goal going into that is exactly what it should be – to win it."