COLLEGE STATION, Texas – Postseason play begins this weekend as the 25th-ranked Texas A&M men’s tennis team travels up Highway 6 to take on regional rival SMU in the first round of the 2008 NCAA Division I Men’s Tennis Championships in Waco, Texas.
The Aggies (12-11) are making their 15th consecutive and 16th overall postseason appearance. They will collide with the Mustangs (20-8) on Saturday, May 10 at 2 p.m. at the Baylor Tennis Center. The winner will then advance to the second round and face either host and ninth-seeded Baylor (22-8) or Oral Roberts (7-9) in the second round to be played on Sunday, May 11 at 2 p.m.
A&M and SMU, former Southwest Conference rivals from 1916-1996, last met each other 10 years ago in the 1998 NCAA Regional finals contested in Austin, Texas. SMU prevailed with a 4-3 victory over the Aggies to move on to the Sweet 16. Prior to that meeting, A&M had a nine-match win streak going versus the Mustangs since 1991. SMU leads 15-13 in the all-time series and has defeated ranked teams in Minnesota, Rice, Cal and TCU this season.
“We know that SMU has had a better second half of the season,” said Texas A&M head coach Steve Denton who has led the Aggies to back-to-back NCAA appearances. “Early on they lost a couple of matches, but they have played very well since. They beat Rice who we lost to in a very close match in Houston, so we know we have our hands full. We’ve only seen them at (fall) regionals, but we know their strength of their lineup is in their first three singles. Our top three have had pretty good years and done well, so we should match up well with them.”
Top player and team captain Conor Pollock (San Antonio, Texas) leads a young A&M lineup comprised of freshman Austin Krajicek (Brandon, Fla.), freshman Wil Spencer (Ponce de Leon, Fla.), sophomore Chris Chirico (Philadelphia, Pa.), senior Matt Bain (Georgetown, Texas), freshman Kayvon Karimi (Dallas, Texas), senior Mike Beatty (Cincinnati, Ohio) and sophomore Stephen Shields (Austin, Texas). Bain has played in four-straight NCAA Championships followed by Pollock with three-straight years of postseason experience.
After using the bye week to focus on final exams, the Aggies also found time to work on perfecting their games in preparation for the Big Dance. A&M’s doubles play has flourished after winning the doubles point in four of the last six matches. The combinations of Krajicek-Pollock, Beatty-Spencer and Bain-Chirico have proven successful for the Aggies. Krajicek and Pollock have won nine of their last 10 at No. 1, while Beatty and Spencer have won five of their last six at No. 2.
“We finally have our doubles straightened out and going,” Denton said. “Our guys have done a good job of preparing over the break. For us to play better as a team in the postseason, we have to be looking to play more of an attacking style in singles. We have worked really hard this past week on coming to the net and finishing points.”
Scouting The Mustangs…SMU is ranked No. 40 in the ITA Collegiate Tennis Rankings which marks its highest national ranking of the season. They are led by three All-Conference USA players in first teamer Robin Fahgen and second teamers David Kuczer and Alex Skrypko. Fahgen is currently ranked No. 112 nationally. SMU has posted its best record since 2001 and the fifth 20+ win season under 15-year head coach Carl Neufeld.
Baylor At A Glance…The Bears claimed their sixth Big 12 Championship title with an upset of top-seeded Texas, 4-2, in the championship match of the Big 12 Tennis Championships hosted by A&M on April 27. Baylor earned the league’s automatic bid as well as one of the top 16 seeds in the 64-team field. The BU lineup includes two of the nation’s top 10 singles players in No. 8-ranked Lars Poerschke and No. 9-ranked Denes Lukacs. Last year, the then third-seeded Bears ended A&M’s postseason run by a 4-0 tally in the second round. A&M holds a 23-14 advantage in the all-time series versus Baylor.
A Look At Oral Roberts…Oral Roberts earned the Summit League’s automatic bid after defeating Western Illinois, 4-3, in the Summit League championship match on April 26 in Fort Wayne, Ind. The Golden Eagles have now laid claim to eight league titles including seven in the last eight years. They will face host Baylor for the second consecutive year in NCAA first-round action. Last season, the Bears blanked ORU, 4-0, in Waco. The Golden Eagles are led by Alex Kotsuik who boasts a team-leading 12-2 record in singles. A&M leads 1-0 in the all-time series versus Oral Roberts with its first and only meeting occurring in 1980.
Up Ahead…The winner of each first-and second-round site will advance to the NCAA Division I Men’s Tennis Championships hosted by the University of Tulsa on May 16-20 at the Michael D. Case Tennis Center in Tulsa, Okla. The individual championships will be held following the team championships on May 21-26 on the Tulsa campus.
One Singular Sensation…For the first time since 2006, the Aggies will be represented at the NCAA Championships as Conor Pollock received an at-large bid to the singles championships. The two-time All-Big 12 Conference honoree earned his first trip to the individual championships after compiling a team-leading 20-14 overall record at No. 1 singles this season including 12 dual match victories. He defeated eight nationally-ranked opponents and is currently ranked No. 25 nationally in the ITA Collegiate Tennis Rankings. Pollock has captured 44 career dual match wins in singles and 44 career dual match wins in doubles. He was ranked as high as No. 15 nationally this season which marked a career best. Former player Jerry Makowski was the last Aggie to compete at the NCAA singles championships and earned All-America honors in 2005 and 2006.
Double Up…After a three-year absence, the Aggies will also have a doubles team headed to the individual championships. Pollock along with 17-year-old phenom Austin Krajicek posted an impressive 9-1 mark this past season at No. 1 doubles. The duo is currently ranked 20th nationally in doubles and received an at-large bid to the NCAA doubles championships. Krajicek and Pollock became the first A&M doubles team to earn a berth to the 32-team field since former players Brett Joelson and Ante Matijevic in 2005. The duo’s biggest match victory this season was an 8-4 upset of then sixth-ranked Ed Corrie and Kellen Damico of Texas on April 19.
“Last year, we didn’t qualify anyone for the individual championships, so it’s an improvement to have a singles and doubles team headed to NCAAs,” Denton said. “It’s always an exciting time and I think Conor and Austin have a legitimate shot at winning the whole tournament. They’re as good as any doubles team in the field and they have proven that they can play with anyone in the country this season.”
Aggies In NCAA Championship Play…Texas A&M has made 16 all-time NCAA appearances including the last 15 seasons and in 1985. The Aggies have reached the Round of 16 on eight occasions (1985, 1994, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2005) and to the Elite Eight once in 2001. They are 22-15 all-time in postseason play and have advanced past the first round 13 times.
Brains and Brawn…For the second-straight year, the Texas A&M men’s tennis team earned the Highest Team GPA Award for the spring 2007 semester along with the women’s golf team. In addition, the Aggies had two players selected to the Academic All-Big 12 First Team including senior Matt Bain who is among 106 student-athletes set to receive their degrees this weekend during the University’s May Commencement ceremonies. Bain completed coursework toward degrees in marketing and finance from the prestigious Mays Business School at A&M.
Playing The Nation’s Best…All but five opponents on the Aggies’ 2008 schedule made the NCAA field of 64 including five of the top 16 seeds in the tournament in seventh-seeded Texas, ninth-seeded Baylor, 11th-seeded Tulsa, 13th-seeded Pepperdine and 14th-seeded Florida State. Ten of the A&M’s 11 losses of the season were against opponents ranked in the top 25. With one of the nation’s strongest schedules, the Aggies had quality wins over NCAA participants Boise State, Washington, Duke, TCU, Wake Forest, Indiana and Texas Tech.