Men's Tennis puts streak at five
Before their recent five-game winning streak, it looked like the Owls' ground was breaking from underneath them. What seemed like a promising season at the start was starting to turn sour with Rice's 8-5 record and season-low ranking of 64. Two weeks later, the Owls have moved up 22 spots and have added to their NCAA tournament resume impressive wins against ranked opponents the University of Memphis, Tulane University and the University of Denver.
With these monumental victories over the past couple of weeks, senior Michael Nuesslein was ecstatic that the Owls are back in the conversation to land an elusive at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. Nuesslein knows nothing is set in stone yet, as the Owls have to keep up these elevated levels of play and continue winning down the stretch.
"I think our chances to make the NCAA tournament are much better than they were two weeks ago," Nuesslein said. "Our tournament we had at home helped start the turnaround along with the trip to Las Vegas. Before those tournaments, no one was talking about going to the NCAAs. After these two weeks, we are now back in the race to get an at-large bid."
In light of its recent success, Assistant Coach Efe Ustundag believes this is the best he has seen the team play collectively all year. Ustundag credited the bench, which has stepped up for struggling and injured starters, as the key to the team's five-game winning streak. In his opinion, everyone on the team feels like a starter.
"There are times where we have played without starters, but this is the first time this season that guys off the bench have stepped up," Ustundag said. "Each and every one of them have decided that if one of the starters is out, another starter is in. There are no bench players because we feel like this is an evenly skilled team, as anybody on any day can beat each other."
Nuesslein agreed with Ustundag. He mentioned that in recent weeks, the Owls have picked up their game, and it has been a collective effort with more than just a few impressive individual performances.
"One of the most important keys right now is we have four players in singles and four players in doubles that show up consistently," Nuesslein said. "It does not have to always be the same four players, so overall as a team, we are much better than we were two or three weeks ago."
The Owls face their toughest road trip of the season as they play three matches in five days. In that span, Rice takes on conference rival Southern Methodist University tonight, Texas Christian University on Sunday and Texas A&M University on Wednesday.
Ustundag is wary of SMU, as he said it is one of the most underappreciated teams in the nation. Even with its non-ranking, SMU is going to be a challenge for the Owls, as it always provides close, intense battles.
"They are better than their non-ranking, and we always have tough matches with SMU," Ustundag said. "They are dangerous; there is no doubt about it."
Ustundag knows TCU can beat anyone, as it almost upset Tulsa University, which is ranked in the top 20, last weekend. He has a lot of respect for the Horned Frogs and knows they can push the Owls to the limit.
"TCU is strong, well-coached and ranked," Ustundag said. "They basically gave away a match to Tulsa last week. They are capable, very capable. They are playing at home, and I think because of that, it is an even match."
The prime-time game will be the night match at Texas A&M on Wednesday. The Aggies are currently in the top 25, but Rice has confidence it can win at A&M since it did so three years ago by a close 4-3 score. Nuesslein knows that if Rice is to pull off the shocking upset, it cannot let the crowd get into it early, as that could lead to a comfortable blowout win for the Aggies.
"Always going to College Station is tough because Texas A&M is a top-15 team," Nuesslein said. "I think we have to stay in the match early to make sure it is a close one. If we can do that, we can see what we can do and hopefully walk away with the win."
Ustundag was proud of what the team had accomplished in the past couple of weeks but views this three-game Texas swing as a make or break for the Owls' tournament hopes. He can see this weekend as a momentum builder or stopper as the season winds up in a few weeks.
"It is a situation where we can go 3-0 or 0-3," Ustundag said. "If we continue to stick together as a team and trust each other, support each other, play hard for each other, we will do alright."
More from The Rice Thresher
On Thursday, sophomore distance runner Grace Forbes proved to the rest of the country what her Conference USA opponents and Rice teammates have known for years – she’s one of the fastest runners in the country. Competing at the NCAA championships in Eugene, Ore. for the second consecutive year, Forbes, took second place in the 10,000-meter, the best finish by an Owl at the NCAAs in over a decade. According to Forbes, who missed the indoor season and the first month of the outdoor season due to extreme fatigue later diagnosed as an autoimmune disorder, the result was a testament to the work she’s put in to overcome an incredibly challenging year.
Five Owls will be heading to next week’s NCAA outdoor track and field championships, after qualifying at the NCAA West Preliminaries which ran May 25 through 28. Headlining the meet for Rice was sophomore distance-runner Grace Forbes, who took first place in the 10,000 meters for the second consecutive year. Forbes will be joined in Eugene, Ore., by sophomore thrower Tara Simpson-Sullivan, junior thrower Erna Gunnarsdottir, senior thrower James McNaney and sophomore vaulter Alex Slinkman. Jon Warren, head coach of the men’s track and field program, said that he was impressed not only by the five qualifiers, but by all 13 Owls who participated over the course of the week in Fayetteville, Ark.
The Conference USA outdoor track and field championships saw Rice’s men’s team place third with 121 points — their best conference championship performance since 2005 — and the women’s team place fifth with 88 points. According to men’s head coach Jon Warren, he was proud to see the work his team put in all season be on full display at the meet.