April 3, 2009

Maroons bring new level of intensity but need key wins as season closes

They had four games in five days, with heavy postseason implications.Men’s tennis knew spring break would be an intense week, as it is for so many Chicago teams. That was fine, though, for a squad that has built a reputation for intensity on and off the court.“We brought a new level to the game this spring break,” first-year Troy Brinker said. “Tennis is known to most coaches as a gentleman’s sport. We made it more of a manly sport and a ‘gangsta’ sport.... I think other teams took it a different way, that you’re not supposed to get fired up in tennis, but for me, for example, the matches I won, they were all close ones, but without my teammates pumping me up and without my own mental prep, they would all be losses.”After nearly a month away from competition, the squad wanted to come together as a team in the final weeks of the season, and bolster its credentials for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament in early May.The 2–2 record over the break left the latter objective only partially achieved. After starting the week with a 1–6 loss to The Citadel (8–8), a D-I foe, Chicago responded with a convincing 7–3 victory over then-21st-ranked Whitman (19–4), a key win in the Maroons’ argument for an at-large bid.Two days later, though, the Maroons dropped a close contest to then-18th-ranked DePauw (11–1), 6–3. They were able to salvage the trip with another key win over Carleton (8–5), but the loss to DePauw could prove costly as the regular season winds down.“We thought we had a shot to win every match if we played well. That’s always our goal, but my goal was to be prepared to play and come out and play hard and give it our best shot, and we definitely achieved that in every match,” head coach Marty Perry said. “It came down to a couple of matches here and there, and points didn’t go our way…. It was close, but we gave it our best shot and I thought we played really hard in that match.”If the team is concerned about losses to Denison, Kenyon, and DePauw, they won’t show it, at least on the court. According to Brinker, third-year captains Steve Saltarelli and Garrett Brinker have helped raise the Maroons’ unity as a team, efforts that have increased courtside noise.“I think we brought great intensity to the matches,” first-year Jan Stefanski said. “We were definitely the loudest on [the] court for all our matches.”With just two weeks left before UAAs, the Maroons could be looking for this team mentality to give them an edge through the rest of the season. As Troy Brinker said, the Maroons have brought a level of enthusiasm to the game that few other top-ranked teams have demonstrated, and Perry reiterated that idea.“They want to play hard for each other. We didn’t have anyone in the lineup [over break] that let down, in my opinion. I thought everyone played hard, and I think that has something to do with it, when you have team chemistry and team camaraderie,” Perry said. “They’ve become closer, and they want to play for one another. They want to look up and down the courts and see that everyone is battling as hard as they can. They inspire each other to play hard.”Still, as the regular season enters its final weeks, the Maroons find themselves on the outside of the NCAA bubble looking in. If national projections play out for the rest of the season, Chicago will be four spots out of the race for at-large bids, with both Denison and DePauw in line in front of them.Still, a few wins could revitalize Chicago’s claim to an at-large bid. An upset win over 12th-ranked UT–Tyler could help make up some ground, and the UAA tournament will be a crucial string of matches for the Maroons.A conference championship would write Chicago’s ticket to NCAAs, but that will be a tall task with first-ranked Emory, second-ranked Wash U, and 14th-ranked Carnegie Mellon standing between the Maroons and a conference crown. In a division as loaded as the UAA, though, Perry is confident that more than just one team from the conference will make the trip to Claremont, CA.The Maroons have six more matches before UAAs, and according to Perry, a closing stretch as strong as the spring break trip should have the Maroons playing into May.“I thought we had very good break,” Perry said. “If we play like that the rest of the season, I think we’ll end up where we should end up.”