Vanguard University men's tennis by the numbers: seven players; six countries; No. 3 national ranking; zero losses; and one goal.
Coach Mattias Johansson's Lions, unbeaten and unlikely underdogs, take a 22-0 record into the NAIA championship that runs Tuesday through May 18 at the Mobile Tennis Center in Alabama.
It's the 11th consecutive trip to nationals for Vanguard, which has competed in 13 of the 14 national tournaments since the team format began in 2000. The Lions have lost in the quarterfinals the last four seasons, the last two years to the eventual champion, and have reached at least the quarterfinals nine times. Vanguard, which claimed its first Golden State Athletic Conference title since 2000 this season, lost in the national semifinals in 2004 and 2000.
But Johansson, a former player at Vanguard who is in his 17th season as coach, believes this year could be the year.
"I expected these guys to be really, really good," Johansson said of a lineup that includes three extremely talented underclassmen and three steady seniors. "I felt the personnel was right, with a good mix of senior role players."
No. 1 singles player Stefan Kilchhofer, a 27-year-old freshman from Basel, Switzerland, is 22-0 in singles play this season and is 17-3 with various doubles partners. The GSAC Player of the Year did not lose a singles set all season and is ranked No. 2 in the ITA national NAIA rankings, behind Nicolas Pinones of Auburn Montgomery.
Team captain Roger Muri, a sophomore from Zurich, Switzerland, is 21-0 at No. 2 singles and 20-2 with various doubles partners this season. Muri, 23, is ranked sixth nationally. He is also an All-GSAC performer.
No. 6 singles player Daymon Johnson, the lone American and a freshman from Bakersfield, is 18-1 in singles and 17-1 in doubles, including a 15-0 mark with senior doubles partner Yahor Kryvaruchka.
"It's tough to be the No. 3 player on your team and you only have one loss," Johansson, the GSAC Coach of the Year, said. "And in that loss, he had match point."
Kryvaruchka, from Barcelona, Spain, is 16-4 at No. 5 singles and 19-1 in doubles.
Senior Robin Wagner, from Greunberg, Germany, is 13-3 at No. 4 singles and 16-4 in doubles, while senior Lukas Larsson from Ystad, Sweden, is 11-7 at No. 3 singles and 15-6 in doubles.
The lone substitute is Radek Rosiak, a junior from Swidnica, Poland, who is 6-3 in singles and 4-3 in doubles this season.
Despite their success, including a 5-4 home nonconference victory over Fresno Pacific, the 2012 NAIA runner-up that is now competing in NCAA Division II, the Lions have failed to surpass No. 1 Embry-Riddle of Florida (20-2) and No. 2 Auburn Montgomery of Alabama (18-3) in the rankings.
"I don't think we've gotten enough credit for our season," Johansson said. "I think the schedule we've played can be matched against Embry-Riddle and Auburn Montgomery, and we are undefeated. I think there are a lot of political games with the East voting against the West. But, being the underdog is a position I'd rather be in."
Johansson said depth, chemistry, conditioning and talent are all working in his team's favor.
But with daily matches in demanding conditions — typical temperatures in the 90s with 90% humidity — and virtually unknown competition, the pitfalls in Alabama are many.
"To be in this position, to have a chance at the national championship, is a blessing," Johansson said. "I have to admit I'm excited, but I'm most excited for the kids. I know this opportunity doesn't come along very often and I want them to realize that. Nobody will remember us if we don't win the national championship."
Johansson said a national title, the program's first, would be career validation for him, though as he has matured into coaching from his days as a student-athlete at Vanguard, he has grown to appreciate more than winning.
"It would be hard for me to go to another school," said Johansson, who became head coach immediately following his senior year, when Athletic Director Bob Wilson hoped to stem a then-trend of turnover in the position.
"Bob asked me for a three-year commitment, which at the time felt like a long time." Johannson said. "I've had quite a few offers over the years to go to Division I schools outside of California. But they didn't really attract me. I like what Vanguard stands for and I like the environment. I've seen many changes in the school since I've been here, and the future looks pretty bright."
Vanguard opens in the second round against either Warner of Florida (12-9) or Oklahoma Baptist (15-10) on Tuesday. No. 6-seeded Xavier of Louisiana (14-7) is the likely quarterfinal opponent the following day.
Should seeding hold, Vanguard would meet Auburn Montgomery, which has won nine NAIA titles and had six additional runner-up finishes in the last 26 years, in the semifinals.
Top-seeded Embry-Riddle, which has never won a national title, figures to face either No. 5-seeded Bethany of Kansas (22-1) or No. 4-seeded Westmont (11-10), the GSAC runner-up, in the other semifinal.