The addition of third-year Wisconsin transfer Ward Bortz was one of the critical elements to the men's tennis team's 8.5-match improvement from 2003-2004. Heading into the biggest weekend in Division III tennis, he just might have been due for a karmic reward.
Bortz (26-10 in singles matches) scored a first-round victory 7-5, 6-7(4), 6-0 over Swarthmore second-year Jon Reiss (16-8) to earn All-American status at the national singles tournament in Santa Cruz, California, on Saturday. He went on to drop a well fought second-round match-up 6-2, 6-3 against sixth-seeded California-Santa Cruz fourth-year Kevin Casey (29-8), closing the book on a historic season for Maroons tennis.
"My goal going into the tournament was to play well. I always try to focus my game and let winning and losing work itself out," Bortz said. "I was very pleased with my results. Hopefully, next year I can enjoy the experience with my team."
"Performance-wise, I wanted to see him do what he could to play his best tennis of the year, and I think he did that," head coach Marty Perry said.
Bortz, who stood at 14th in the nation in the most recent rankings, entered the tournament weekend knowing he needed at least one victory in the tourney to lock up All-American status. He got off on the right foot, but Reiss, ranked 49th in Division III, refused to go away quietly. Bortz trailed 4-2 early in the first, but recovered to take the set. He then jumped out to a 5-0 in the second, only to see Reiss stage a breathtaking comeback to tie it up and then to win the tiebreaker, sending the match to a third set.
"My first round match was one of the oddest that I have played. I played poorly to start, but I started to get my rhythm and was able to win five of the next six games to win the first. I attacked him early to get up in the second, then, somehow, I ended up losing that set," Bortz said. "That is the equivalent of being up 14 with possession with two minutes left in a football game and having to go into OT. To his credit, he started playing better, but it was at least a partial choke on my part."
"I went to the sideline and talked with [Coach Perry.] He was great and just told me to forget about it. He said that I was better than this kid and I should play like it. [In the third set,] I played aggressively, and luckily it worked out in my favor."
Bortz slammed Reiss 6-0 in approximately 20 minutes to advance to the next round.
"Anytime you're up like that, with All-American status and going to next round at stake, it's disheartening if the other guy comes back. Ward did an amazing job at forgetting about the first two sets and just dealing with the situation he was in. He dictated play for the whole third set," Perry said.
With national recognition locked up, Bortz was in position for a deep run if he could pull off a win against Casey. It was a daunting task on paper and on the court. The hometown hero entered the match fresh off an easy first-round victory, and was ranked first in the country in the most recent poll.
"Kevin is a good player, no doubt. On top of that, he is in incredible shape," Bortz said.
Bortz didn't let Casey off easily, playing a challenging game in the first set without much success and taking an early 2-0 lead in second. He couldn't convert several chances to go up three games, and ultimately ended the day on the short end of the final score. The after-effects of his long showdown with Reiss may have played a factor in the match.
"I think coming back to win the second set [against Reiss] and the third took a lot out of him. He was out there for 80 minutes longer than it would have if he had closed out the second set," Perry said. "Casey doesn't give you anything. He's a very good player. The only way to beat him is to get him off the baseline and bring him in or hit winners by him. To play that way takes a lot of energy."
"He just outlasted me on a point-to-point basis. I had to start playing overly aggressive in order to end the points quicker. He is very consistent and dealt with pace well, so I was not able to string together enough points to get something going," Bortz said.
Casey may have expended a little too much energy to get by Bortz, as he fell to fourth-seeded Bates third-year Will Boe-Wiegaard (22-8) in the quarterfinals.
"I had very few expectations about the level of play. I expected it to be high, but was not sure as to the style of play or the depth of the field," Bortz said. "The level of play ended up being very strong.I accomplished my goal, and was lucky enough to be named All-American. I would have to say this is a highlight for the season."
It was a season with a number of highlights to choose from. Bortz went 2-1 in singles matches during the UAA tournament to help lead the Maroons to a third-place finish, their highest standing in 10 years. His work at first singles helped pace the squad to an 18-9 regular season record and their first-ever NCAA tournament appearance, a 5-0 first-round loss to Carthage May 6. Bortz also finished 20-12 in doubles matches on the season, going 16-9 with his usual partner, first-year Sasha Deriy.
"I had a lot of fun this year with the tennis program. I learned a lot and enjoyed my coaches and teammates," Bortz said. "I was about as successful as I hoped."
The newcomer to the team has one more year of eligibility left, having used his first two playing tennis in the Big Ten for Wisconsin. Bortz went 21-26 with an 8-14 mark in the conference over his career at Madison.
"Next year, I would like to really focus on being in great shape. I think that would improve my results dramatically," Bortz said. "As a team, I would like us to either win or place second in the UAAs and either win or placed second in the NCAA regional. I think those are lofty goals that we could definitely accomplish."