February 24, 2009

In must-win situation, Chicago takes two to preserve shot at nationals

With its NCAA hopes seemingly slipping away, men’s tennis responded this weekend, earning much-needed wins over Kalamazoo and Grinnell.

The D-III schedule is still young, but losses to Denison and Kenyon last weekend had the Maroons losing sight of the coveted at-large bids to the NCAA Championships, which take place in May. In a conference as difficult as the UAA, Chicago knew it needed to top both of its non-conference opponents this weekend, and the results were a 5–4 win over Kalamazoo Saturday and a 7–2 victory Sunday over Grinnell.

“These two wins keep us alive for a bid to nationals,” third-year Garrett Brinker said. “Coming off of a disappointing start to our season, we knew that this past weekend was do or die. They give us a lot of confidence for practice the next couple of weeks and for our upcoming spring break trip.”

The men’s pairs started off strong against Kalamazoo, with the combination of third-year Lado Bakhutashvili and first-year Jan Stefanski taking second doubles 8–5 and second-year Mark Bonner and first-year Troy Brinker teaming up for an 8–5 win at third doubles.

The advantage at doubles proved the difference, as Chicago split with Kalamazoo in singles play. Second-year Will Zhang scored a straight-set win at first singles, and Bakhutashvili matched him with a win in consecutive sets at the second position. Third-year Steve Saltarelli dug out of an early hole at fifth singles for a decisive 3–6, 7–5, 6–3 win.

The win propelled into Sunday’s matchup with Grinnell, a must-win considering Grinnell’s standing as the 12th-ranked team in the Central Region.

Second and third doubles again set the tone, and Chicago put up a convincing performance in singles to extend its lead.

Saltarelli picked up a 6–2, 6–2 win at fourth singles, while Bonner nabbed a 6–4, 7–5 victory at the sixth spot. Stefanski also won in straight sets at fifth singles with a score of 7–6 (7–3), 6–1, while Brinker scored a 7–6 (7–5), 7–6 (9–7) win at the third position. Zhang capped Chicago’s scoring with a 3-6, 6–3, 1–0 (10–6) win at the top singles spot.

For Brinker, the win marked a turning point for himself and the team. The veteran’s close loss Saturday against Kalamazoo exemplified the struggles that the team had early in the year, but a strong team win Sunday has the Maroons ready for the rest of the season.

“The Grinnell match really helped my confidence. Losing a couple close matches before the Grinnell win took a toll mentally. I had opportunities and was just missing them,” he said. “Confidence can really be the biggest [part] of tennis sometimes. Individual confidence plays off of team confidence and vice versa. That’s the mentality that I need, and that’s the mentality the team needs as a whole.”

The men now have a month off before competition resumes full force at the end of March, with a trip to South Carolina during spring break.