Men's tennis rolls to an easy 2-0 start
After a heartbreaking loss to Texas Tech University in last May's NCAA championships, the Owls have been waiting for their chance to get back on the court. Rice wants to prove all the doubters wrong and show that it does have the players and the talent to win Conference USA and make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.
With only the loss of senior Oscar Podlewski (Martel '11) from the team, Rice brings back a strong core led by junior Harry Fowler, who earned a spot on the C-USA Men's Tennis All-Conference first team last spring along with senior Christian Saravia and junior Jonathan Chang, who qualified for the second team. With four seniors on the team in Sam Garforth-Bles, Michael Nuesslein, Andy Wang and Saravia, the Owls have a veteran group that will hopefully lead the team to a successful season before they graduate. The newcomers on the team include freshman Justin To from Hong Kong, China and freshman Leif Berger from Leichlingen, Germany as the team keeps adding on to its frequent flyer miles with seven international players from four different countries.
Aside from the players, it will be a year in transition for the coaches. Head Coach Ron Smarr, who has the most wins in Division I history at 855, will step down after this year as the head coach. In Smarr's 15-year tenure, he has led the Owls to six straight NCAA bids and has won two conference titles in 2004 and 2010. The Owls did not have to go too far to find their next head coach, as assistant coach Efe Ustundag (Baker '99) will take over starting next season.
Ustundag admitted it was a dream come true for him and he hopes to continue the success that Smarr has produced in the past 15 years.
"The key to the transition is continuing the success that we have had over the years," Ustundag said. "I want to add my personality as the head coach, but I want to keep taking care of the student-athletes like Head Coach Smarr has been doing all of these years."
The Owls started their season last Saturday with a doubleheader against Lamar University and Prairie View A&M University at Jake Hess Stadium. The Owls had no problem in either of their matches as they breezed to 7-0 wins. Fowler notched two singles wins along with Garforth-Bles, Nuesslein, Wang and To. Junior Peter Frank secured a singles victory in the first match against Lamar, while Berger got career win number one in the later match against Prairie View A&M.
Ustundag was very satisfied with the team's performance against Lamar and Prairie View as he felt the team looked fresh mentally and was ready to start the season off on the right foot.
"We were clearly the better team in both matches," Ustundag said. "We had good practices going into the matches, and we did not mess around as we took care of business."
The tough stretch of the Owls' non-conference schedule starts this weekend with two vital home matches against the University of Texas and Louisiana State University. The Owls are playing the Longhorns tonight at 6 p.m. in the Met indoor tennis facility downtown, and they host LSU on Sunday at 1 p.m. at Jake Hess Stadium.
Ustundag knows that these matches are going to be interesting, but he feels like the Owls' experience will play a huge factor, especially against the Longhorns, who only have one senior on the team compared to the Owls' four.
"Every year, when we play LSU and Texas, it is a battle," Ustundag said. "Both teams try to outfight you, but with the experience and talent that we have this season, we should come out victorious."
Expectations are high for the Owls coming into this season, and Fowler agrees. Even though they are only ranked 39th in the country right now, Fowler believes they can be a top-20 team, when it is all said and done.
"Last year was tough," Fowler said. "We had a struggle getting six guys playing well at one time, but this year we have the talent to be a top-20 team and we need to use our rackets to show it."
Ustundag agrees with Fowler saying that all 10 players have to play well for the team to be successful. He said it couldn't be just one or two players playing their best, as that will not get the job done. Ustundag feels that if everyone on the team can give it their all, the sky is the limit.
"It is not fair to say our success as a team depends on one or two players," Ustundag said. "The entire team really needs to step up. If we can stay healthy and do this, we should be able to win the conference and hopefully be a regional site for the NCAA first and second rounds."
More from The Rice Thresher
There’s no denying it: Rice women’s basketball had a rocky start to the 2019-20 season. Coming off a historic season last year in which the team won 21 straight games and reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005, this year’s team registered a middling 5-6 record against non-Conference USA opponents to start the season.
The last time the Rice men’s tennis team took the court for a match was almost three months ago, on Nov. 3, when sophomore Campbell Salmon and junior Mohamed Abdel-Aziz picked up a pair of doubles wins to close out the Ralston/Neufeld Coaches Challenge and the Owls’ 2019 tournament season.
Rice men’s basketball will aim to pick up its second Conference USA win of the season this week when the team faces the University of Texas, El Paso on Thursday night at Tudor Fieldhouse.