After two weeks that saw Rice go on a four-match losing streak, the Owls are finally soaring high in the sky again thanks to a return to Jake Hess Tennis Stadium on the weekend that saw the men's tennis team win against both Southern Methodist University (16-8) and the University of Texas-Arlington (12-9).
On Saturday against SMU, the Owls took an early 1-0 lead in doubles thanks to a sweep across the board. Partners senior Oscar Podlewski and sophomore Harry Fowler, juniors Christian Saravia and Michael Nuesslein, and the 80th-ranked doubles team in the nation, sophomore Peter Frank and junior Sam Garforth-Bles, each won their matches to give the Owls the early lead they needed. Thanks to two dominant two-set wins by Frank and Garforth-Bles and two three-set wins by Podlewski and Nuesslein, the Owls cruised to a 5-2 victory to end their slide.
On Sunday against UT-A, the Owls got out of the gate fast again as the same doubles pairings from Saturday against SMU played and won to give Rice a 1-0 lead. Garforth-Bles added another singles victory to his great weekend along with Saravia, Nuesslein and Podlewski, who played his final match ever at Jake Hess Tennis Stadium on Sunday.
Before the match, Podlewski was honored as a graduating senior and received a plaque. Podlewski said it was a good day not only because of the pre-match ceremony but also because he had a good final match as his sendoff. Both he and the team came out with victories.
"The match was a good match, as it was pretty thrilling," Podlewski said, "It challenged me both mentally and physically. It was good to win that kind of match in my last home game along with the team winning as well."
The Owls are now 15-8 on the season and ranked 42nd as they prepare for the Conference USA tournament that began yesterday in Tulsa, Okla. The Owls are the No. 2 seed in the tournament, and they will face the No. 7 seed, Tulane University (11-10), today at 5 p.m. The Owls last played Tulane on February 4th as the Owls traveled to New Orleans and beat the Green Wave 4-2 thanks to winning the doubles point along with victories from Fowler, Podlewski, Saravia and freshman Phillipp Seifert.
Assistant Coach Efe Ustundag is worried that, even though the Owls beat Tulane the first time around, the Green Wave will be gunning for them, and the Owls need to respond with a complete effort.
"They are going to be pretty pumped up because they almost had us the last time we played," Ustundag said. "This time that is not going to happen, as we are going to step on the court and play as if they are capable of beating us, and that will give us more urgency and help us stop some of those unforced errors."
Heading into the tournament, Podlewski feels good, as he believes that the past two victories have set up some momentum so that the Owls can still come through and win it.
"The right tone was set before the tournament with these two victories at home, as we are going in on a high note," Podlewski said.
The Owls realize that they need to take it one match at a time, but the whole team is hoping for a rematch against the University of Tulsa (16-7), who beat them two weeks ago at Jake Hess Tennis Stadium. Podlewski said that only a Tulsa and Rice matchup in the C-USA final would feel right.
"We want to play against Tulsa again to get revenge for what happened earlier in the season," Podlewski said. "I am really excited about the possibility."
In terms of their NCAA chances, Podlewski feels like they have improved drastically thanks to the wins over SMU and UT-A, which helped to stop the bleeding that was caused by the last four weeks. Podlewski has high expectations not only for the conference tournament but also for the NCAA tournament, as he thinks that the Owls can go far and send him away with a graduating present.
"With the talent on this team, we should not only get to the NCAAs but get to the Sweet 16 or better," Podlewski said. "I truly believe that."
Ustundag said that the team can't feel too safe about their NCAA berth, and they need to just control their own destiny and win to get in.
"We are going to Tulsa to defend our title," Ustundag said. "We are not going there to get ourselves comfortably into the NCAAs. The easiest way to get in would be to win the title outright."