With foreign mixture, men’s tennis seeks seventh-straight America East title

Since Adam Cohen took the helm, the Binghamton men’s tennis team has dominated the America East. Six conference championships. Six NCAA tournament appearances.

Franz Lino/ Staff Photographer Junior Florian van Kann practices in the Events Center in the week preceding the America East tournament. A native of Germany, van Kann is just one of 10 foreign players on the team.

The Bearcats, boasting a roster filled with foreign talent, will shoot for their seventh straight league title this weekend in Baltimore.

Kids have come from all over the world to play for Cohen — Germans, Australians, Moroccans — and that has created an interesting team dynamic that has fostered its winning culture.

“It’s always a great experience to meet all these people with different countries, different cultures,” said junior Robin Lesage, who hails from France. “We get to exchange a lot and that’s what makes us such a good team I think because we’re really tied altogether because we’re all in a different environment. It just makes it more fun overall.”

With so many northeast schools competing for elite regional talent, Cohen had no choice but to tap his connections outside the United States to fill out a roster.

“We always try to measure our success against the Ivy League programs,” Cohen said, “and to be successful against those teams without getting those best kids, we couldn’t settle for the second tier so we had to go overseas.”

That strategy has reaped benefits for Cohen and the program. But the key has been recruiting tennis players with the right personalities.

“We’ve been lucky to have good guys that are easy to get along with,” Cohen said. “We’ve never had anybody that’s been hard to get along with. Everybody obviously has tennis in common.”

Even with the tennis court serving as a unifier, players display varying tactics, often depending on their home country. Lesage, who has posted a 20-16 record in singles play this season, said he and his teammates learn from each other’s approaches to the game.

“Some players like to just make balls. Other players are more aggressive,” Lesage said. “That depends on their skills and abilities, of course, but also maybe the way they play tennis in their respective countries.”

Last year, not a single American suited up for Cohen. This year, the roster features six freshmen from the New York metropolitan area.

“It was nice to have some native speakers, and some of them understood better how to motivate the team, like getting loud on the court,” said junior Florian van Kann, a German who has gone 10-4 in singles play this season. “That’s not something we have in Europe so much. That helped increase the morale a bit.”

That morale has not diminished despite Binghamton’s ineligibility for the 2014 NCAA tournament. Because the America East has just four members, its conference champion will not receive an automatic bid to the national event.

That’s why Binghamton University’s athletics department announced Monday the men’s tennis team would join the Mid-American Conference (MAC) next fall.

But the Bearcats would like to conclude their chapter as an America East school on a high note.

“We’ve had a good run going. It would be nice to keep it going even though it doesn’t have the NCAAs at the end of the finish line, but it would mean a lot for the guys,” Cohen said. “There’s a few seniors on the team, and I know they would like to do what some of the guys before them did, which is win four in a row and then leave.”

That path will begin against Hartford tonight at 5 p.m. If the top-seeded Bearcats defeat the Hawks, they will face either Stony Brook or host UMBC in the championship.

Regardless of the weekend’s outcome, Cohen will continue to tap the foreign recruiting pipeline as he guides Binghamton into the MAC. And that, according to Lesage, is a good idea.

“It’s true that tennis is primarily a sport that you play alone,” Lesage said. “But the fact of playing it with your teammates and plus foreign teammates from all over the world makes it interesting.”