Denison alum returns to transform men’s tennis program

Big Red Athletics
May 24, 2024

Tim Cianciola ’22 recalled the relentless running and full-throttle intensity of the first week of men’s tennis practice under coach David Schilling ’89.

Cianciola was part of the search committee tasked with selecting a new coach in 2020. He favored Schilling, a longtime Ohio State University assistant coach, but four years later Cianciola laughed about the memories of those early culture-shifting training sessions.

“He had us working hard,” Cianciola said. “I can remember thinking, ‘Did I make a mistake with my choice?’ But it didn’t take long to see how coach Schilling’s plan was going to pay off for us.”

Cianciola blossomed into an All-American under Schilling’s guidance, and the Big Red program has enjoyed its most successful stretch, posting an 80-16 record and qualifying for four consecutive NCAA tournament appearances.

In 2024, Denison reached the NCAA Division III Elite Eight for the first time in history, and it has three players competing in the NCAA Singles and Doubles Championships in St. Louis (May 26-28).

“David’s vast experience in Division III and Division I made him the quintessential candidate to take a strong program to the next level,” Denison athletic director Nan Carney-DeBord said. “He has done just that.”

‘Sleeping giant’

Schilling had opportunities to become a head coach during his two-decade stint with the national powerhouse Buckeyes, but didn’t act on them.

When the Denison job came open in 2020, Schilling was intrigued. He previously had coached at the College of Wooster and Kenyon College and knew the Division III talent level was vastly improving.

In researching the Big Red vacancy, Schilling was impressed by the leadership of President Adam Weinberg and the direction of the athletic department under Carney-DeBord.

“I kept hearing Denison was a sleeping giant,” he said.

Schilling was a member of four consecutive NCAC title teams as a player and had a treasure chest of great memories from his time on The Hill.  

“This is a special, special place for me,” he said. “There’s a great sense of community here. It just felt like I was coming home.”

Team camaraderie

Schilling looks for three traits in Big Red players: a willingness to work, a desire to compete, and a commitment to support teammates.

Every coach is searching for talent, and Schilling is no exception. But it’s the intangibles that often change cultures and transform good programs into great ones.

“In junior tennis, you’re playing for yourself — it’s about the individual,” said Kael Shah ’26, who will play in both competitions at the NCAA Singles and Doubles Championships this weekend. “In college tennis, you’re playing for a team, and the energy you bring to the court is important to the team’s success.”

The Big Red play a heavy metal brand of tennis — hard-driving and loud. Schilling has players shouting encouragement to teammates on match days.

Ethan Green ’26, who will partner with Shah in the NCAA doubles competition, said the emphasis on team building in a sport not known for it was an adjustment. But he likes the camaraderie Schilling has created. Jacob Patterson ’26, who will compete in the NCAA singles competition, also touts the advantages.

“I didn’t realize as much as I do now how much the support of my teammates can help me in a close match,” Patterson said. “That support can really make a difference.”

A high bar

The Big Red had endured a 15-year NCAA tournament drought prior to Schilling’s arrival. In the past three years, the program has won four NCAA matches  — doubling its previous total.

Schilling says there’s no “secret sauce” in building a national title contender. He believes, however, that players learn the most when someone’s keeping score and something’s riding on the outcome.

“There’s no substitute for match experience,” he said. “That’s why I want recruits who love to compete in this program.”

Covid restrictions limited the Big Red to 13 matches in the 2020-21 season. Since then, Schilling has expanded his roster and increased the number of opponents. The team has won 20-plus matches in each of the last three years.

Led by Andy Mackler ’24 and the trio of sophomores, the Big Red captured the conference regular-season and tournament titles this spring and finished with a 21-5 record.  

While team play ended May 21 with an NCAA quarterfinals loss to the University of Chicago, Big Red players will compete throughout the summer. The Denison coaching staff tracks off-season matches of every player in top-40 Division III programs. Last year, the Big Red logged the most.

“When I came here, we set the bar very high,” Schilling said. “Our goal is to become one of the best teams in the country and compete for national championships. We still have work to do.”

Cianciola, the program’s second all-time winningest player in singles matches (67), isn’t surprised by Schilling’s success. What impressed him during the interview process has aged well over four years.

“We could see his vision for the program,” Cianciola said, “and he’s delivered on it.”

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