Whether its high school or college, senior year is a momentous moment in any athlete’s life. In high school, it’s either the final run or a chance to continue playing in college. In college, it’s either the final run or a chance to do something less than one percent of all Americans do: play sports professionally.
For senior co-captain of the UC Santa Barbara men’s tennis team, Nicolas Moreno de Alboran, his final season marks both.
Moreno de Alboran came into this new season ranked No. 6 out of 125 athletes in the country according to the ITA Tennis National Ranking. His ranking is by far the highest any player has achieved in program history.
For perspective, last season, Moreno de Alboran came into the year ranked No. 42. At the time, that was the highest ranking achieved by any Gaucho in history.
Like most athletes, Moreno de Alboran has been playing tennis since he was a young boy. However, unlike most athletes, the New York native did not even start playing competitively until much later.
“I really just started playing tennis just hitting a few balls around while I was in the Dominican Republic,” Moreno de Alboran said. “I never even took it seriously at the beginning, it was more of a hobby and a way to exercise.”
When Moreno de Alboran moved to England, he gained new insight into how much he loved tennis. He realized it would take a lot of work, but he wanted to compete at a high level.
Still, by the time he started competing, most players who hope to pursue tennis at least in college have played at least in 100 tournaments, whereas Moreno de Alboran did not.
“It was hard to get good, but as I got better I knew I wanted it so I had to compete in tournaments. But by the end, I only competed in about 20 tournaments as a junior which is nothing compared to most,” Moreno de Alboran said.
Still, those tournaments were enough to garner some serious attention from some Division-I programs including UCSB and Head Coach Marty Davis.
“You know it’s funny when we began recruiting him we actually did not know how little tennis he had played compared to most,” Davis said. “But we knew we wanted him and glad we got him.”
“When I got here Marty and Blake [Mueller, Associate Head Coach] gave me the opportunity to play and get better. I don’t think that would have happened anywhere else,” Moreno de Alboran said.
All the playing Moreno de Alboran did his freshman year certainly paid off. In his rookie campaign, the New York native posted an 18-8 overall mark and went 15-7 in dual match play. This was enough to earn him Big West Freshman of the Year honors.
“I was and still am so grateful Marty and Blake gave me the opportunity to come to play here and show what I am capable of. Being in a team like this, in a school like this, has helped me to develop my game so much,” Moreno de Alboran said.
Little did Moreno de Alboran know he would improve significantly from his freshman year.
Last year, Moreno de Alboran went 29-11 overall. He also became the first Gaucho to be invited to the ITA National Fall Singles tournament, was named the 2018 Big West Player of the Year, led his team to a fourth-straight Big West crown, earned the highest national ranking in singles in program history at that point and became the first UCSB athlete to win an NCAA Singles Championships match since 1995.
This season, Moreno de Alboran already looks like he is ready to accomplish more. In just the fall tournament portion of the schedule, the three-time first team all-conference standout went 13-5 earning key wins against players currently ranked No. 5, No. 8, No. 33, No. 54 and more.
Moreno de Alboran’s current No. 6 ranking is not only the highest in program history but also the highest of any Big West athlete in the last 22 years.
Who would have thought that a kid who played tennis for fun growing up and didn’t even play competitively until late in life would be this good?
“You always hope players turn out as good as Nic but you never know, how could you? We knew he had a world class forehand and he has built his game around that, but he has grown so much in all facets of his game that his game as a freshman compared to now is a night and day difference,” Davis said.
Even Moreno de Alboran could not have expected to be in this position.
“No, I never thought I would be this good because I never saw tennis as 10 years ahead, five years ahead. I always stayed focused day by day. I never thought I would be playing against the best players in the nation and beating them,” Moreno de Alboran said.
Still, the work is not done. Two years ago, and even last year, making it to the semifinals or quarterfinals against the top players in the country was a win. For a small mid-major like UCSB and Moreno de Alboran usually just making it to a big game is seen as a win.
But this year, Santa Barbara and their senior co-captain are ready to go beyond just making the big game, they want to win it.
Last season, Moreno de Alboran came within a set of defeating the No. 1 player in the country, Martin Redlicki of UCLA at the NCAA Singles Championships after winning his first-round match the day before. That was good enough for last year, not this year.
“Nic is no longer in the stage of just being happy to be here. He knows he deserves to be here and he knows he could hang with these guys, they aren’t that far in skill level anymore. Now he just has to go out there and beat them,” Davis said.
“I don’t see why I couldn’t beat anyone in this country right now. Those rankings are just numbers I don’t see them as better or worse, I see every match as an opportunity to grow and represent the Gauchos,” Moreno de Alboran said.
As for the team as a whole, the Gauchos are poised for major success. In doubles, Moreno de Alboran and fellow senior teammate Anders Holm are one of the best pairs in the country. In singles, this team is talented from top to bottom including having junior Joseph Guillin play at the No. 2 court. Guillin is currently ranked No. 22 in the country.
Last season, UCSB nearly upset one of the best tennis programs in the country, USC, at its own home in the first round of the NCAA Team Championships. The score ended 4-1 in favor of the Trojans, but if you were at the game, you would know the Gauchos were leading on all singles courts at one point and looked like they would win on most.
That was good enough for last season, not this one.
“Last year showed us our program was headed in the right direction. We have a goal this year, to win another Big West and to get our first NCAA win since 1998, and with Nic and some of our other guys I think we could do it,” Davis said.
Almost like it was meant to be, Moreno de Alboran and UCSB as a whole are peaking together at what feels like the right time. Just this past Saturday the Gauchos won their season opener 5-2 against San Diego State and Moreno de Alboran looked impressive.
It will be interesting to see what awaits the program and the athlete that helped it turn into quite possibly the best mid-major in the country.
“I get goosebumps when I get reminded of that,” Moreno de Alboran said. “I am super grateful for my coaches, my teammates, this school and I am super excited for this season. It is my last one and I am ready to soak everything in.”
A version of this article appeared on p.1 and p.4 of the Jan. 24th, 2019 print edition of the Daily Nexus.