SALT LAKE CITY — It’s not often a team gets invited to an NCAA tournament while in the midst of a seven-game losing streak.
That’s the position in which the Utah men’s tennis team finds itself as it gets ready for Friday’s first-round match against No. 17 Oklahoma. However, the Utes certainly aren’t complaining about the invitation — their first NCAA invite in 21 years.
“You always put it down as a goal and it’s been a goal for a very long time,” said Utah coach Roeland Brateanu of the NCAA invite. “I think this was the team we felt, at the beginning of the year, that could really do it. We worked really hard for it and came up with it.”
The Utes played well in the non-conference portion of the season, winning 17 of 19 matches, including wins over local rivals BYU, Utah State and Weber State. They opened Pac-12 play with wins over Arizona State and Arizona, but had a tough April while playing against the cream of the Pac-12 crop; teams that are also among the best in the country.
Three Pac-12 teams, UCLA (No. 2), Stanford (4) and USC (10), are ranked in the top 10 in the country. But playing those Pac-12 schools said competing in the top tennis conference in the nation helped the Utes get into the NCAA tourney.
“The Pac-12 is the best league in the country — 55 out of 75 times the Pac-12 has won the national championship,” Brateanu said. “It’s a very challenging league.”
After dropping their final six matches of the season and losing in the first round of the Pac-12 championship, the Utes were on the bubble for making the NCAAs.
“To be honest, we were either the first team out or last team in,” said Brateanu. “Thank goodness it was the last team in. We really didn’t know what to expect. I knew the ranking was there if the committee honored the ranking. It was a nerve-wracking day, but we were really excited when our name was called out.”
For senior Santiago Sierra, the only player to have been with the Utes for the past four years, it was a thrill to be invited.
“I’m overjoyed, super excited,” he said. “This has been a goal for the last four years since I came into the program. Definitely being able to achieve this is super special. It’s an unbelievable way to finish a college career.”
Utah’s top two players are Dan Little, a junior from London, England, and David Micevski, a junior from Macedonia, who posted season records of 17-6 and 15-7, respectively. Sierra, who hails from Mexico, came back from shoulder surgery last year to move up from No. 6 at the start of the season to No. 3 in the lineup, and compiled an 18-4 record on the season.
Another senior, Egbert (Eggy) Weverink, plays No. 4, while Randy Cory, a freshman from Salinas, California, plays No. 5. Three players, freshman Russell Benkaim, sophomore Slava Shainyan and junior Joe Woolley, have been competing for the No. 6 spot.
This marks Oklahoma’s ninth straight NCAA appearance, with the Sooners advancing to the round of 16 the last five years. They were the NCAA runner-up for three straight years 2014-16 and last year the doubles team of Andy Harris Spencer Papa won the doubles title. This year they are led by No. 1 player Alex Bakshi, who is 14-2 on the season.
Sierra believes the Utes will be competitive after going through their tough schedule this season.1 comment on this story
“They have been one of the best teams in the country over the past five or six years but in our conference we play teams like USC, UCLA, Cal and Stanford, and three of those four are top 10 in the country,” he said. “We’ve been close to beating those teams at some point in the past four years, so we have the same approach as we do with those schools.”
The Utes and Sooners’ match will be at 11 a.m. MDT Friday, with Georgia and Minnesota playing in the other bracket at 1 p.m. The winners will meet on Saturday. The winner of the regional will go on to compete for the national championship in a 16-team tournament at Wake Forest University May 18-22.