Hicham Laalej is no stranger to challenges.
The Morocco native journeyed to America to play tennis at Stetson University in Florida. Two years later, he moved again, this time to Philadelphia.
He has overcome quadriceps injuries, elbow tweaks and ankle sprains. So why should a broken foot during his last year be any different?
The senior captain leads the men’s tennis team into Saturday’s home match against Maryland-Baltimore County, as the Quakers look to extend their seven-game winning streak.
Headed by junior No. 1 Cristian Hodel, UMBC (5-2) hopes to avenge a recent loss at the hands of Virginia Commonwealth. This may prove tough against the hot Quakers. The Red and Blue improved to 7-0 Wednesday after defeating Navy in a shutout victory.
Penn’s undefeated season, however, has come as a bit of a surprise. Last year, Laalej suffered a broken left foot during a spring tournament going into his senior year.
He would be out for 10 months. More importantly, he would be forced to miss his last year of eligibility, after finishing first-team All-Ivy.
But Laalej did not quit. He rehabbed his foot every day and kept himself in shape. At the end of his recovery, he applied for a “medical hardship,” which allows players to receive an extra year of eligibility due to a serious physical injury. He received it and came back for one more season.
His return to the dominant form he's exhibited so far this spring was not immediate. After sitting for such a long period, Laalej said he knew it would take time to readjust to the level of Division I competition he knew he would face
In the fall, elbow and quad injuries kept him in rehab and physical therapy.
Nevertheless, Laalej persevered. He still went to physical therapy, built up his confidence and stayed healthy. He also improved his serve, applying new techniques with the help of his coaches.
Coming into the spring season, Laalej, once nationally ranked No. 105 in D-I singles play, looked to return to his position of dominance.
“This spring, the team has been great,” he said. Laalej added that he still has to be "careful and smart" if he feels any pain. When the elbow flares up, he said, he'll switch to do fitness training.
Laalej, who was 44-4 at Stetson with a .917 winning percentage, said he came to Penn to challenge himself. And he will get a challenge Saturday against the Rams’ No. 1 Hodel, who lost to VCU’s nationally ranked Tim Johanssen (No. 113) in a tough 7-5 match.
“Coach [Nik DeVore] said Saturday will be difficult … but I think we’ll take care of business,” Laalej said.
Penn looks to chase the Ivy title this year, but has the demanding part of its schedule ahead. The team will travel to California over spring break for a tournament, where they will face three nationally ranked teams.
For now, however, the Red and Blue are focused on Saturday.
“For next match, the same preparation and focus is key,” Laalej asserted. “We are motivated for the title and want to win every game. We have a deep lineup and if we just manage our talent, I know we can. The title will be tough — but I love a challenge.”
This article has been updated from its original version to reflect that Laalej had traveled and played outside of Morocco before traveling to the United States. It also reflects that he suffered two injuries in the fall, to his quad and elbow; that he did not say he struggled immensely in the fall but instead that he knew his return would not be immediate; that he did not say he was "constantly overexerting himself; and not that he doesn't try to push himself, but that he has to be careful not to overexert himeself.Comments powered by Disqus
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