Inconsistency plagues sluggers against Knights
After a midseason slumber that saw the Owls drop crucial matches to both the University of San Diego and Wake Forest University, Rice got back on track by winning three in a row at home before losing to fifth-ranked Texas A&M University on Wednesday at Jake Hess Stadium.
The Owls' winning streak started at the 53rd Annual Rice Invite as the Owls dismantled the University of Central Florida, 4-1, on Mar. 19. The Owls secured the doubles point to take a 1-0 lead in the match and won thanks to singles victories from sophomore Harry Fowler, senior Oscar Podlewski and junior Christian Saravia.
The Owls finished up the Rice Invite with a dominant 4-0 win over the University of Texas A&M Corpus Christi on Mar. 20. The Owls raced out to the early lead by taking the doubles point and never looked back as Podlewski, Saravia and junior Michael Nuesslein recorded two-set victories to give Rice the sweep over the then 60th-ranked Islanders.
The following weekend, the Owls hosted the 72nd-ranked Texas Christian University in a match that was a thrilling 4-3 victory for the Owls. TCU had the early start, as they took the doubles point to go out to a 1-0 early lead. The Owls came back to go ahead in the match, 3-2, thanks to two-set wins from Nuesslein, Saravia and sophomore Peter Frank. Junior Sam Garforth-Bles won it for the Owls with a 7-5 win in his third set tie-breaker to give him the victory and the Owls the match.
Assistant Coach Efe Ustundag felt that even though the Owls almost lost the match, the team did everything that the coaches wanted them to do and then some, which led to the victory.
"Overall, it was a phenomenal win for us, as there was hard work across all of the courts, as our guys played well, looked for openings and never gave up when they were behind in matches," Ustundag said.
However, the Owls' winning streak came to a screeching halt against the Aggies as Rice was dropped, 6-1. All three of the Aggie pairs won their doubles' matches to take an early 1-0 lead in the match. Rice could not recover from their rough start as Texas A&M won five of the six singles matches to cruise to an easy victory. Garforth-Bles was the only Owl to win his match to prevent a 7-0 sweep.
The Owls are now 13-5 and are ranked 37th in the nation as they head out this weekend to play at the University of Texas on Saturday before road meetings with conference foe the University of Tulsa and the Big 12's University of Oklahoma.
Texas is currently ranked sixth in the nation, as they also have a 13-5 record on the year including an earlier 4-0 sweep of the Owls on Jan. 30 in Austin. However, the Longhorns have been struggling as of late as they have dropped three of their last five matches.
Ustundag is worried about these next three opponents, as they are all in the top 25, but realizes that the Owls can compete with them thanks to their tremendous depth.
"Our biggest weapon is being able to go after opponents with depth, as we have good strength through one to six, while the top teams are usually very strong at the front but can be weak in the back," Ustundag said.
Fowler agrees that these next couple of weeks will be a challenge but that the Owls are not going to back down and be scared.
"We feel like if we have a complete lineup and play consistently, then we can play with any team in the nation," Fowler said.
Ustundag feels that the Owls can pull off an upset or two if they stick to the way they have been playing in the last three weeks, as they have started to play more consistently and have made better decisions on the court.
"What matters the most is who can execute and, in a way, who wants it more," Ustundag said. "We certainly are capable of winning if we execute and play smart like we have been over the past couple of weeks."
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