For fourth-years Steve Saltarelli and Garrett Brinker, this year’s NCAA tournament means more than the culmination of this season’s work.
A doubles team for three seasons, Saltarelli and Brinker have been on the outside looking in throughout their careers, falling just short of both the team and the individual brackets in each of the last three seasons.
This year, a late win streak helped them into the top four in a tough Central Region, and Chicago’s top pair will see its first tournament action today, finally.
“It feels great to make the tournament,” Saltarelli said. “It’s been one of our goals for the last three years Garrett and I have played together, and it’s pretty tough to sneak in, so we’re happy to be here.”
The Maroons’ pair will square off against the second seed in the tournament, UC–Santa Cruz’s Brian Pybas and Marc Vartabedian, but Saltarelli said an upset wasn’t out of the question.
“I think that we’re definitely capable of hanging with any team in this draw,” Saltarelli said.
The pair came close to qualifying two years ago, when they were ranked fourth in the region just prior to the final rankings. A late loss, however, set Saltarelli and Brinker back in the rankings, meaning that their nationals trip would have to wait another year.
Last season, the Maroons came within inches of qualifying for the team bracket, finishing the season ranked 17th in the nation but falling just outside the field of at-large qualifiers.
Chicago’s final chance to bolster its résumé this season came in the UAA tournament, where an upset loss to Brandeis in the first round erased Chicago’s chances to make the team bracket. That meant that their last chance would be the individual doubles bracket, and when the draw was announced on May 11, the pair had qualified.
“It’s a good way to go out, getting to a point that we haven’t ever reached before,” Saltarelli said. “We would have liked to have been in the team tournament, but this is a good substitute.”
They won’t be the Maroons’ lone contingent at NCAAs, however, as third-year Will Zhang is making his second straight trip to the national tournament.
A season ago, Zhang caught fire in the NCAA tournament, winning two matches to reach the quarterfinals. After being named an All-American and the ITA D-III Player to Watch last season, Zhang is looking to carry that momentum into this year’s tournament.
“I definitely had a good tournament last year...and I’m looking to do the same this year,” Zhang said. “Last year was a different year, things change, but to know that I can compete with these guys, it definitely gives me some confidence.”
While the trio of Maroons expects to carry their strong regular-season performances into NCAAs, Zhang said that they’ll have to make some adjustments without the support of the rest of their characteristically boisterous team on the sidelines.
“During the regular season, you’ve got the whole team. Here it’s just me, Garrett, and Steve,” Zhang said. “So obviously it’s not a team environment where you have guys behind you; I guess you have to find your own intensity, pump yourself up when you need it.”