Having come evolved from a forgotten squad three years ago to the program's first Div. III tourney appearance, the men's tennis team is looking to prove that this season has been more than a flash in the pan.
The third-seeded Maroons (18-9) look to build on their last upset today in Gustavus, Minnesota, against second-seeded, nationally 19th-ranked Carthage (19-5). A win against the Redmen would put them in their bracket's final match, where they would face the winner of top-seeded, fifth-ranked Gustavus and fourth-seeded Coe for a spot in nationals. Coming off a 4-3 shocker over 17th-ranked Wash U to secure the UAA's third place, Chicago players feel that they're just hitting their peak now and are primed for another big win.
"Our team has come a long way during this season," said first-year Bharath Sithian, who will play sixth singles today. "Everyone's physical fitness has improved a great deal over the year, and our games have made significant strides. The team is playing levels above how we played when we first arrived."
That degree of that improvement could be the difference maker in today's match against the Redmen, who beat the Maroons 6-1 on March 12. Better conditioned and playing smarter tennis now, Chicago feels they have a prime opportunity to exact revenge. Players point to the difference between their 5-2 loss against Wash U on April 3 and their upset victory over the Bears exactly two weeks later at UAAs as indicative of how far they've come. They also know that Carthage lost to Wash U 4-3 in their only match-up this year.
"We're pretty psyched for our match against Carthage," said fourth-year fifth-singles player Jacob Reckess, a UAA second-team singles selection. "We lost to them earlier in the season, and so we're lucky to have this opportunity again. Hopefully, we'll capitalize on the opportunity."
The team's only senior, Reckess has been around for the team's lowest and highest points in recent memory and is clear on the biggest difference: the team's coaching staff. Not only successful recruiters, second-year head coach Marty Perry and assistant Eric Mahone have also stressed conditioning and high-percentage play as focal points from day one.
The former has shown in long, back-and-forth battles, of which the Maroons have had many. The latest, Reckess's 5-7, 7-6, 6-2 comeback victory over Wash U's Chris Kuppler, secured the Maroons' conference finish. Doubles teammate first-year Joseph Tchan, who was awarded a UAA honorable mention for his doubles play with Reckess, has similarly shown great play down the stretch, often coming back from being down the first set.
"Marty and Eric have truly done an incredible job," said Reckess, referring to the UAA's coaching staff of the year. "They have patiently molded us into smart doubles playersan ironic rarity in college tennis, where the doubles point is so crucial."
"They've also built us into a tough and conditioned team. While I'm relieved that I will never have to run another nine-ball sprint again after this season, I realize that our team is one of the most conditioned teams out there and that this fact wins us countless points and raised eyebrows from our opponents every match."
Players credit their coaches' work ethics with instilling the importance of preparation and determination to the team. During the off-season, Perry and Mahone would work with players individually as early as 9 a.m. and stay through the end of team practice at 11 p.m. daily. That sort of tirelessness could also be seen in Chicago's tough matches, as 20 of the team's 24 spring matches were on the road. The Maroons held their own against tough foes too, going 4-4 against regionally ranked opponents and ultimately fighting their way into the region's top six teams.
"Our biggest strengths are probably that by now our team is mentally strong and match-tough due to the large amount of matches we played this year," Sithian said.
High-percentage play, the buzzword since Perry began coaching this team, has also played a key part in the team's revival, particularly in doubles matches and upset victories. Rather than going for the big point, the Maroons seek to take advantage of their opponents' weaknesses and not beat themselves with unforced errors. Most importantly, that mentality has given the team a deep lineup that is as likely to turn a couple wins out of fifth and sixth singles (where Sithian and Reckess are a combined 24-13) as it is the top of the rotation. Obviously, with third-year transfer Ward Bortz, 25-8 on the year and ranked as high as third regionally this year, the top has held its own in big matches.
With all of that in mind, Chicago now looks to show Carthage what a difference a couple months can make. Though a win today would unquestionably be the team's biggest of the season, the Maroons also know that they need to stay within their game plan, playing as they have been in recent weeks and not letting their intensity cause them to overplay.
If they can get past the Redmen, the Maroons would likely face the 24-3 Gustavus Gusties Saturday, the clear favorite.
Though a long shot to make it to nationals, this year was just an intermediate step, though a huge one, in the team's long-term prospects.
"Either way, I'm proud of how far we've come," said Reckess, who will be the only player graduating this June. "If you had told me four years ago that Chicago Tennis would even make the NCAAs by my fourth year, I would have laughed hysterically. Having the chance to play in the tournament is fantastic."