One year removed from a 23-9 overall record, a Conference USA tournament championship and a first-round loss to Louisiana State University in the NCAA tournament, the Rice Owls men’s tennis team enters the Conference USA tournament at 20-7 with 10 wins in its last 12 matches.
Rice currently boasts the third-best overall record in Conference USA, winning over 74 percent of their matches. Rice will be seeded first in the conference tournament for the third consecutive season.
The Owls also captured several marquee wins this season, none more important than a victory over the No. 16-ranked University of South Carolina 4-2 in the 69th Blue Gray National Tennis Classic on Feb. 2. The battle was one of a series of matchups held in Montgomery, Alabama, where Rice’s players were housed by several local families who supported the Owls during the tournament. Several Rice seniors noted that the victory over South Carolina uplifted the team during the season.
“Winning the Blue Gray Tournament in Montgomery was my favorite moment of the year,” senior Tommy Bennett said. “It peaked with taking out South Carolina. We just wrecked them in doubles and it came down to [sophomore] Eric [Rutledge] to clinch it.”
Senior David Warren agreed the tournament was the highlight of the season. According to Warren, playing on the road with fan support is part of what has made his Rice tennis experience special.
“The trip was one of the best experiences I have ever had, beating a top-16 team and being hosted by wonderful families who came and watched us play,” Warren said.
According to Bennett, Rice must harness its experience playing outside the friendly confines of the George R. Brown Tennis Center, both neutral and away, to take advantage of postseason opportunities.
“We have always felt confident about winning Conference USA after last year,” Bennett said. “The hardest thing was dealing with the number of away matches we scheduled this year. I think our success away from home will help us in the conference tournament and the NCAA tournament.”
Several other factors will influence the Owls’ success in the Conference USA tournament and potentially the NCAA tournament. Because every match starts with three doubles matches (each played to one set), and the team who wins at least two out of three matches captures the doubles point, quick energy will help a team gain an early advantage. Towards the end of the season, several Rice players expressed disappointment with the team’s effort at the beginning of matches. Bennett said the Owls must focus and play with full intensity to advance in the postseason.
“Tennis is tough,” Bennett said. “Some days we come out and we don’t have the energy or the spark. We need that to win the doubles point. It’s all about bringing the energy and using our confidence to bring our doubles game back to where it was before.”
Although the Rice men’s tennis team is confident it can win the C-USA tournament, several players acknowledged that luck is a major factor in the postseason. According to Warren, the Owls need to remain optimistic and confident while focusing on what they can control.
“Our goal from the beginning of the year has been to win Conference USA,” Warren said. “Once you get into the NCAA tournament, anything can happen. Hopefully we can win a round or two and get to the Sweet Sixteen.”
Even if Rice fails to capture the C-USA crown, it can still capture an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament if the selection committee considers the Owls one of the top 34 teams in the nation who did not win their conference tournament. Currently ranked No. 38 in the nation, Rice would likely capture an at-large bid if necessary.
Senior Henrik Munch said entering the C-USA tournament has made him nostalgic about his four years as an Owl.
“We are all close, we are all friends,” Munch said. “It makes us want to compete and fight for each other. It is sad to leave, and it is hard to believe it has already been four years. But for now, we still have some matches left and I hope we will do well.”
Rice will open its defense of the conference title against University of Texas, El Paso on Friday, April 21 at 2 p.m. at the Adams Tennis Center in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.