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Men's tennis in slump headed to Conference USAtournament

By Daniel Elledge     4/18/13 7:00pm

After a close 4-3 loss to Southern Methodist University over the weekend, the Owls head into the 2013 Conference USA tournament, which will be held in Memphis, Tennessee. Rice University finished the regular season with a 10-13 record and will have to win the C-USA tournament if it wants to qualify for the NCAA tournament.

The Owls come in as the sixth seed and will go up against Tulane University in their first-round matchup Friday. Tulane defeated Rice two weeks ago on the Green Wave's home court in a back-and-forth match, 4-3.

Head Coach Efe Ustundag said the draw presents a challenge since Rice will have to defeat the top three teams - the University of Tulsa, the University of Memphis and Tulane - if the Owls expect to come out with the C-USA championship.

"We have to go through the first, second and third teams," Ustundag said. "It is a tough road, but again, we played all of these teams closely during the regular season. If we show attitude and show our true quality, then I think we can beat Tulane. We will see if they can beat us twice in a row."

Even with the prospect of being the first men's tennis team in several years to finish the year with a losing record, senior Jonathan Chang said the team does not feel any pressure since no one outside of Rice expects it to advance past day one of the tournament.

"I think being the sixth seed, we do not feel any pressure," Chang said. "We have to stay loose and trust ourselves to play to our abilities. To win conference, it is crucial that everyone plays up to that level."

In previous years, the Owls have held higher rankings going into the C-USA tournament and felt more pressure in terms of landing an NCAA bid. The last two years, Rice went into the C-USA tournament holding the No. 2 seed.

Ustundag agreed with Chang, saying he hopes the players play freely.

"At this point, I do not think there is any pressure," Ustundag said. "Every team we faced in the conference, we lost to. It is not like we are going in as a favorite or going in protecting our ranking. This year, it is easier because it is win or go home."

Even with the loss to SMU on Sunday, the Owls still celebrated Senior Day, saluting the work of seniors Peter Frank, Dylan Tozier and Chang.

Chang said he has enjoyed his time at Rice and he cannot believe that his four years are almost over. For him, it has been an amazing ride.

"This year was different from previous years since we had a very young squad, but I really enjoyed all of my coaches and teammates," Chang said. "I wish I had another year at Rice."

Ustundag said he was proud of all three seniors for their dedication and hard work over the years but that their time is not done yet.

"It is sentimental," Ustundag said. "[Senior Day] is a nice ceremony, but it is not the end of the road. I will not reflect on the end of their [careers] just yet because there is still tennis to be played."

Ustundag said that if the Owls show true determination this weekend, they could be the ones lifting the trophy at the end of the C-USA tournament.

"After the SMU match, I believe with all of my heart we can win that tournament," Ustundag said. "However, it is going to take more than my belief to get us to win. If we want to make a major statement, we have to come out hungry."

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