There’s getting hot at the right time, and then there’s absolutely dominating at the right time. For Mississippi State’s men’s tennis team, it’s a whole lot of the latter as they’ve shot up the rankings and advanced all the way to the prestigious Round of 16 in the NCAA Tournament this weekend.
Ranked No. 21 in the country, the Bulldogs blanked No. 16 Illinois 4-0 on their home court over the weekend to secure the trip to Tulsa for the Round of 16. With that dominating win, MSU is now 5-2 in its last five matches, one of those losses coming in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament two weeks ago.
State’s success may seem surprising to many on the outside who saw head coach Matt Roberts have to replace seven of nine players from last season’s team, but those within the locker room had every expectation that this is where they would be, even if it was considered unlikely at best by most in the college tennis world.
“We put in the work,” freshman Trevor Foshey said. “Hard practices throughout the year. We were ready and we knew we could do it. We feel like we deserved this and we knew we could do it. It’s not a huge surprise. We feel like we should be here. We’re happy about it, but we’re still not done.”
Said Roberts after Sunday’s win, “I am so proud of these guys and what they’ve accomplished this season with their backs against the wall. It is unheard of for a team this young to be this successful, but these guys defy the odds. Before Friday, we had only two players with any postseason experience, and our younger guys handled it like veterans.”
Much of the reason for those odds being defied – aside from talent, of course – is the chemistry of the team. It sounds like a coachspeak cliché, but it’s something Roberts and his players genuinely believe to be true. When they arrived in Champaign for the regional last week, they practiced twice per day, but they also went to an iMax movie, played soccer-tennis (a mix of the two sports played on a tennis court) constantly and generally goofed around and stayed relaxed as they prepared for their matches.
Part of that, too, is the feeling that they have nothing to lose. No one outside the team thought they’d be here anyway, so there’s no pressure. They can be who they are, play how they want and take the success as it comes.
“We just had fun,” Roberts said. “We stressed to the guys, just enjoy the moment and don’t think too much about the match. That just led to us playing at a really high level and being sharp. The guys did great. No nerves. The guys just executed well.”
On the horizon looms the greatest challenge yet as MSU plays No. 3 North Carolina in the Round of 16 on Friday in Tulsa. The matchup is actually a rematch of last year’s NCAA Tournament second round when it was the Tar Heels who put an end to the Bulldogs’ season. Revenge isn’t necessarily on MSU’s mind, as only two players on this year’s roster were around for last year’s loss, but the familiarity at least provides another reason for calmed nerves and lessened tension.
Roberts said his team is able to draw confidence from playing UNC closely last season, particularly as the Tar Heels return, for the most part, the same lineup, while State has bolstered its roster significantly in the 12 months since their last meeting – not to mention the upgrade in attitudes and approach MSU has seen.
“We’re not scared of anybody,” Roberts said. “We respect them.”
If MSU wins Friday, they’ll move on to the next opponent. If they lose, they’ll move on to the next season, as well as individual NCAA competition. Whatever the result, they’re a team that’s incredibly proud of how far they’ve come, and even more proud of where they’re going.
In a rebuild done so quickly that many hardly knew a rebuild had even occurred, Roberts and his Bulldogs have made a clear statement that theirs is a program to beware of in college tennis.
“I’m just happy for the guys,” he said. “It’s unbelievable to see how fast they’ve grown and matured and constantly risen to the occasion and come through.”