Rice's athletic teams have now won three conference championships this academic year. Two of those titles came on Sunday. Both the men's and women's tennis teams captured Conference USA titles with 4-3 and 4-1 wins, respectively, in the tournament finals.
The women's tennis team came into the tournament as the No. 1 seed, but it faced a tough challenger. Florida International University was riding a 19-match win streak and had just one loss on the season heading into the championship match.
The Owls got off to a hot start by capturing the doubles point with wins on courts one and three. Junior Savannah Durkin and senior Katherine Ip picked up a 6-0 win, and juniors Lindsey Hodge and Wendy Zhang captured a 6-2 victory. Needing just three of six singles matches to win the championship, Rice won four of the six first sets in the best of three set matches. After sophomore Fernanda Astete dropped her match, tying the score at 1-1, the Owls won the final three completed matches to clinch the title. Ip cruised to a 6-1, 6-2 victory, then Zhang won 6-4, 6-3 and finally Durkin clinched the championship with a 4-6, 6-2, 6-1 win.
The conference title was Rice's fifth in a row, and the Owls will now move on to the NCAA tournament.
Rice men's tennis got off to a much slower start. In a rematch of last year's conference championship match against No. 49 Old Dominion University, the No. 40 Owls dropped the doubles point and the first two singles matches to go down 3-0. Frustration boiled over for redshirt freshman Eric Rutledge, who was disqualified from his match for having four of his calls overruled by the chair umpire. The 3-0 deficit meant Rice had to win the final four matches to win the tournament championship.
Senior Tommy Bennett got the comeback bid off to a positive start with a 7-5, 7-5 win at the No. 2 singles position. Sophomore Emmanuel Llamas followed by gutting out a 6-3, 3-6, 6-2 three-set win to bring the Owls within one win of tying the match. With the pressure mounting, senior David Warren won another three-set match 6-1, 4-6, 6-2 to tie the score.
Sophomore Jake Hansen was the lone Rice player left on the court. Nursing a 7-5, 5-4 lead at the No. 4 position, he had a chance to serve for the match to win the championship. Unfortunately for him, Old Dominion's Jacob Nicolussi broke to tie the second set at 5-5. Hansen, however, responded with an immediate break to go up 6-5, then closed out the match on serve when his opponent his a groundstroke into the net. The win clinched a 4-3 comeback victory and a conference championship for the Owls.
This year marked the second straight year that both of Rice's tennis teams won their C-USA titles. Both teams will now have the chance to compete nationally at the NCAA tournament, which begins with first and second round matches from May 12th to 14th.