As Angus Bradshaw walked for the last time into the Spalding G. Wathen Tennis Center, he couldn’t help but get a little emotional.
After all, it was his senior night.
Not only was Saturday afternoon’s 4-0 win over Nevada the last time he suited up for the Bulldogs, it was also the last game in Fresno State men’s tennis history.
Back in October, the university announced it would be eliminating three sports at the end of the academic year. Men’s tennis, along with women’s lacrosse and men’s wrestling, got the news that they would be among the teams getting cut at the end of the season.
“It is very shocking that they do this to a program that’s been around for 50-plus years and that has the history that it has,” Fresno State men’s tennis head coach Luke Shields said. “I was very disappointed in that decision.”
“I feel like it wasn’t properly communicated. I know this pandemic makes things challenging but we have to think about how decisions impact the community,” Shields added. “This is devastating to tennis in the valley. Our program is an anchor for the tennis community.”
The program has 11 members on the team, seven of which are international students from Europe.
Bradshaw is graduating at the end of the year, but he still felt the emotional pain of his teammates.
“I was honestly heartbroken,” Bradshaw said. “I know how much this program meant to me in just three years, and some of these guys could have had four to five years.”
Bradshaw (13-3), a native of York, England, always admired the rich history the Fresno State men’s tennis program carried.
But it wasn’t always his first choice. He chose to play at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida, before transferring to Fresno State. Bradshaw completed two seasons at Stetson, but he wasn’t enjoying himself.
His strong relationship with Shields also drew him out to the Central Valley.
Bradshaw said Shields was the first coach who recruited him when he first moved to the United States. In his first season, Fresno State won the 2019 Mountain West tennis tournament.
“There’s been a lot of challenges and difficult obstacles,” Bradshaw said. “But I mean with the teammates we have and the coaching staff, there’s nothing you feel like you can’t tackle.”
Reece Falck (8-2), a freshman from New Zealand, was shocked by the news. After a strong career in New Zealand where he finished ranked as the No. 1 juniors player in the country, Falck committed to the Bulldogs in January 2020, just a couple months before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even during the uncertainty of the team, Falck moved to the United States to start his career. He connected with the culture that Shields incorporated into the university’s men’s tennis team.
Falck said he had a friend attending a college in Minnesota, whose tennis program was also cut. He never imagined that would happen to him and his teammates at Fresno State.
“It’s just a shame that the program is coming to an end,” Falck said. “If you look to see since Luke has taken over the program, there’s been a steady increase in results and improvement It was only going to get better and it sucks that it’s getting cut.”
Now Falck is looking to transfer to another program because he has four years remaining of eligibility to compete in college athletics.
A program established in 1971, Fresno State men’s tennis recently sparked success under Shields.
After being the associate head coach at his alma mater Boise State, Shields finally landed his first head coach position with the Bulldogs in 2015. In his first season, Fresno State finished eighth in the Mountain West with a record of 10-17.
Despite the lackluster performance that season, Shields always thought the team had the talent to compete for a national championship. The group even beat No. 1 seed Utah State in the first round of the Mountain West tournament but lost the next matchup.
Prior to Shields taking over as head coach, many players were transferring out or leaving the program. His goal was to change the culture and make sure everyone was invested in Fresno State men’s tennis.
“It’s the simple things but it’s a process,” Shields said. “We instilled nine specific core values into our guys consistently. Half the guys initially bought in, half didn’t. And it took a while to kind of, you know, have everyone on board, but we did eventually.”
The Bulldogs went on to finish second in the Mountain West tournament for two consecutive years. In 2018, they made the tournament championship but fell short to Utah State.
The team reached the same stage in 2019, and this time they came out on top by winning the championship game.
“We really went from worst to first in four years,” Shields said. “I thought it’d happen a little bit quicker, but we just kept building and then we eventually got there.”
In 2021, it was a very different setting. Like many teams, Fresno State men’s tennis had to adhere to COVID-19 protocols but also came into the season knowing it would be the last for every member.
“They wanted to go all in, and that’s what they did. They all went together, and they had that mindset. They had this decision that kind of gave them a chip on their shoulder and they want to go and prove some people wrong,” Shields said. “I think they think they’ve done that well, winning 20 matches this year.”
The Bulldogs finished the season 20-4, ending with a five game winning streak in which they out beat opponents 32-0. Fresno State also went 16-0 at home. This was the first time since the 2010-2011 season that the Bulldogs recorded at least 20 victories.
The team went a combined 70-25 in singles competition. Bradshaw, along with Zdenek Derkas (10-5), Dario Huber (11-3) and Aleksandr Myagkov (13-2) had at least ten wins and less than six losses.
In doubles competition, the Bulldogs didn’t have as big of a winning record, going 28-21.
“It is an extremely tight brotherhood,” Bradshaw said. “You know you fight for each other. Yeah, you’re not gonna get along with all of them all the time, but you’re all here for the same purpose. You’re at the same goal.”
The Bulldogs honored their three seniors, Bradshaw, Aleschev and Derkas, all three of whom represent different countries in Europe.
And as the matches came to an end, Shields looked back at the crowd and thanked them one last time for coming out and supporting the program.
“I want to thank the tennis community for the support over the years,” Shields said. “It’s been special. It’s a disappointment that this can’t continue but it’s been special and an honor to coach here.”
As for Shields, he is hoping to find a job. He has 13 years of college coaching experience that includes being an assistant coach at the Washington Huskies and Marshall Thundering Herd’s women’s tennis program and also served as the associate head coach for Boise State’s men’s program — the university he also played at from 2004 to 2008.
After graduating, Bradshaw still intends on keeping his tennis career alive. He’ll be spending this summer coaching and working in the Northeast area of the United States before moving on to the next step in his career.