Men’s tennis team’s spring break trip to Florida was filled with strong individual performances throughout the middle of the lineup. But with the UAAs less than a month away, the squad would have liked to come home with a few more team-wide victories.
After enduring a stretch of four matches in five days, the 28th-ranked Maroons (5–6) returned to the South Side with some valuable experience under their belts but only a 1–3 record to show for it. The team was blanked by DI Wichita State (7–5) 7–0 at Fort Myers March 19. Heading to Orlando for their final matches, Chicago rebounded with a hard-fought 5–4 victory against regionally 13th-ranked Grinnell (10–4) March 21. Unfortunately, they could not get the clutch points they needed against regionally 12th-ranked Luther (15–2) March 22 or regionally 11th-ranked Calvin (5–1 at press time) March 23, falling 6–3 and 5–4. First-years Garrett Brinker (7–6) and Noah Schneider (8–5) went 3–1 at second doubles to improve their season mark to 9–2.
The southern exposure was meant to give Chicago a chance to adjust to battling under the sunshine after being stuck on indoor courts for the beginning of the season. The team was also looking to give its younger players a taste of the short rest schedule that the UAA and NCAA tournaments feature and to experiment with different combinations at doubles. The Maroons were hoping to determine whether second-year Alex Winney was better paired with third-year Bharath Sithian or his classmate Joseph Tchan.
“The adjustment to outdoor conditions is a lot tougher and takes longer than a lot of people think. The timing outside is different and the conditions are different,” Brinker said. “Even after an entire week, I don't think we were entirely adjusted to the condition.”
“Doubles was our weak point,” Schneider said. “We are going to have to improve our doubles if we are to improve our standing”
A sweep of their DIII opponents, all of whom are strong squads but are currently ranked below Chicago’s eighth standing in the Central Region, would have given a big boost to the team’s shot at their second NCAA tournament bid in three years. The Maroons are now 4–4 against regional opponents.
The squad got a taste of high-level competition in Florida, starting off with a quality Shockers squad. Wichita State whitewashed the Maroons, but Chicago got quality showings in the doubles competition from Brinker and Schneider (8–5 losers at second) and Sithian and Winney (8–5 losers at third, now 1–2 on the year). While few showdowns were close, the Maroons received a trial by fire that should come in handy against high quality competition in the UAAs at the end of April.
After the test against the Missouri Valley Conference foe and a rainout against Florida Gulf Coast (13–5), the Maroons got a chance to measure themselves against three of their region’s top competitors. They got off to a good start against the Pioneers. Saltarelli and fourth-year Vivek Venkataraman (7–6) gutted out a razor’s edge victory over third-year Nate Warden and second-year D.J. Fox (0–2) at first doubles, taking the bout 9–8 on an 8–6 tiebreaker win. Brinker and Schneider had a somewhat easier time with fourth-year Eric Ohrn and first-year Sam Raife (0–2) at second, where they emerged on the sweet side of an 8–5 score. Chicago would need every point they could get going into singles, where Saltarelli (5–8) fell victim to a 3–6, 7–5, 6–2 comeback by fourth-year Eli Best (11–2) at second and Ohrn (11–2) knocked off Sithian (7–3) 6–2, 4–6, 6–1 at fifth. Brinker and Winney (4–4) both bailed them with straight set victories, and Schneider held off a 7–6, 3–6, 6–4 challenge by Raife (9–4) to lock up the meet win.
“This may sound clichéd, but I think the entire team really stepped up in the
match,” Brinker said. “Noah closed out the match for us in the end. His slicing and dicing really came in handy that match.”
The same breaks didn’t come over the next two days. Luther entered the match looking to get back on track after suffering two defeats in three meets, and the Norse made it clear from the get-go that they weren’t going to let their season slip away. Schneider and Brinker barely survived for a 9–8 win at second doubles, giving the Maroons their only point in tandems play. Saltarelli handled third-year Jono Martin (8–3) at second singles, but an up-and-down 6–4, 1–6, 6–1 victory by first-year Maxwell Busch (9–4) over Venkataraman (0–9) at first and a tough day for Brinker and Schneider at third and fourth pushed Luther over the top. The Busch-Venkataraman match was the only singles battle to go the distance.
They got achingly close again against the Knights, but the Maroons just couldn’t get the timely points they needed. Calvin’s twin terrors, second-year Marcus Zeilstra Saltarelli and third-year Ricky Tilton, slammed Venkataraman and Saltarelli in doubles play 8–2, and fourth-years David Sneller and Dan Volkema roughed up Winney and Tchan (7–6) 8–5. Schneider and Brinker won their third in a row 8–2 to keep Chicago involved and then joined Sithian in earning straight set victories to put them in position to pull it out. It was not to be, as Volkema romped at sixth, and Tilton and Zeilstra come out on top at first and second. Saltarelli looked like he had a shot to make the difference, but his second singles showdown with Zeilstra went from dream to nightmare for a 1–6, 6–0, 6–0 defeat. It came down to Venkataraman, who stuck right with Tilton but ended up falling 6–4, 7–5.
“The Calvin match came down to our first singles player. He was in a battle and unfortunately couldn’t pull it off. We lost two out of three doubles matches, and that turned out to be the deciding factor,” Schneider said.
Although the Maroons are still one of the deepest teams in the region, to qualify for the postseason, they will likely need more production from the top of the lineup. After his loss to Tilton, Venkataraman remained winless on the year, Saltarelli is three matches below .500, and the pair has lost four of their last five at first doubles. This week demonstrated that relying on the bottom four might not be enough to get past the top of heap in DIII tennis.
The squad will get a chance to regroup tomorrow evening, as they host NYU (1–6) at Bally’s at 7 p.m. The Violets just earned their first victory of the season March 15 and have not been competitive in a number of their losses, giving the Maroons reason to hope for a confidence-building victory over a UAA rival.