As the last grains of the 2009 season fall, the chances for men’s tennis to pick up big wins and climb into the NCAA tournament picture are precious and few.
Facing a tough back-to-back Saturday against second-ranked Wash U and 14th-ranked UT–Tyler, the Maroons were able to shake off a lopsided 8–1 loss to the Bears and cash in with a 6–3 win over Tyler.
“On paper, we were the underdog in both, so we had kind of a nothing-to-lose attitude,” head coach Marty Perry said. “I felt we played pretty well and competed well, and obviously we were pretty excited about knocking off Tyler. We put our heart and soul into that match.”
With the teams modifying their schedules to accommodate for Easter Sunday, Chicago was put in an even tougher position than just playing two top-15 teams in the same weekend. Instead of playing Saturday and Sunday, the Maroons pushed their matches together, lining up the Bears for the morning and the Patriots for the evening.
In the matinee, Wash U jumped ahead from the start and never looked back. In what would be Chicago’s closest doubles match, the two-time NCAA-qualifying pairing of Charlie Cutler and Chris Hoeland, who played in the first spot, took down third-years Steve Saltarelli and Garret Brinker 8–6.
With third-year Lado Bakhutashvili absent because of academic obligations, second-year Will Zhang filled in as first-year Jan Stefanski’s partner at second doubles, but the duo fell 8–3. Second-year Mark Bonner and first-year Troy Brinker, who had won six of their last seven matches, lost third doubles 8–4.
Down 3–0, a short-handed singles lineup had little chance against the defending national champions. Chicago opted to rest Zhang during singles play to save him for the match against Tyler, and the Bears took advantage, winning five of six matches in straight sets.
Second-year Paul Namkoong provided the bright spot for the Maroons, picking up Chicago’s only win of the morning at the fifth spot by beating Danny Levy 3–6, 6–2, 12–10.
Heading into the Tyler match-up, the Maroons knew they would face a tough challenge from the outset, as the Patriots have consistently relied on their doubles to give them an edge. Chicago, however, was up to the challenge.
“We talked about it the night before. At the team meeting, I just told them to put it on the line and leave our best tennis at Wash U this weekend…. I told them we still have things to prove,” Perry said. “We ended up playing hard; we played with a lot of emotion, a lot of energy, and we played to win. We supported each other—it was a total team effort in that regard.”
Momentum would play a huge part in the match, as both teams brought high energy to the court. Perry called the back-and-forth action in doubles “stressful,” but Chicago was able to emerge with a 2–1 lead. Saltarelli and Garret Brinker took first doubles 8–6, while Bonner and Troy Brinker matched that score in their third doubles.
In singles, Tyler pushed Chicago to the limit, and four of the six matches went to three sets. Zhang dropped first singles in three sets, but Troy Brinker, Saltarelli, and Namkoong each came out on top of their three-set battles, while Bonner added a straight-set win at the fifth spot.
“This win over UT–Tyler has given us a ton of momentum,” Namkoong said. “This says a lot about how deep our team is, and the abilities of our players to step up to the plate when we really need it.”
While the win over Tyler has kept Chicago alive in the NCAA tournament hunt, the Maroons still need an upset at this weekend’s UAA tournament to push themselves into the postseason.
The South Siders will most likely line up with top-ranked Emory in the second round of the tournament, and a win in that match would earn Chicago one of the six available at-large bids. Based on projections, they will need at least a third-place finish in the tournament to be considered for a spot at Nationals.
“As far as the tournament, we have to approach every match like we did in UT–Tyler: Go out and play our best tennis, be enthusiastic, and fight for it,” Perry said. “If we can approach every match like we did and put it on the line, I like our chances.”
Before UAAs, the Maroons will take on Olivet Nazarene in the team’s home finale, to be played today at 3:30 p.m. at Stagg.