Paul Blankenship did not have to see the Rice women's tennis team's historic win over Ole Miss in person to appreciate both its significance as well as the enormity of the challenge the Owls had overcome to earn the school's first berth in the Sweet 16.
"They did something very, very difficult. They went on to an SEC school's home court with a berth in the Sweet 16 on the line and controlled the momentum of the match. It takes a very special group of players and a very good coach to make that happen."
Blankenship speaks from personal experience, having led the Rice women's tennis team from 1981-2001, taking teams to their first three trips to the NCAA Championships as well as to as high as 19th in the weekly national rankings.
For more than a decade of his tenure as the Owls coach, national rankings only named the weekly top 20 teams and the NCAA tournaments began at the Sweet 16 level, making comparisons of the accomplishments of some of his most talented teams with those of the 2012 Owls impossible to quantify.
"In my second year, we had a team that finished 20-3, but they only took one team from the Southwest Conference. That was a great team, but we had to stay home," he noted.
By 1996, the NCAA field expanded and he led teams to three straight NCAA Championships, but with the end of final exams and the start of the NCAA's literally days apart, the Owls were hardly in prime mental condition to excel on the court. In 1999, the Owls had to decline a bid because the tournament would begin the day after finals ended.
"I think it is great the way the season is set up now. They have the conference tournament, then they can get finals out of the way and then have time to prepare for the NCAA's. They have a chance to get back to thinking about tennis and they obviously did a great job with that period of time this year," he stated.
He had taken teams into the teeth of intimidation that SEC teams could conjure up, especially when advancement in the national tournament was at stake. While the casual sports fan might have looked at a 4-2 win by Rice over Ole Miss and focused solely upon the advancement to Athens, Blankenship could draw on his memories and savor something far more unique.
"SEC schools have a well-deserved reputation for having a massive home court advantage. You can run into all kinds of things when you play a match on the road. I've seen fans lean over the rail and spit tobacco juice on the back of one of my players as she was about to receive serve. They shout when you are trying to serve. They are always trying to impact the match," he recalled.
For a young team to be able to stare down that environment and withstand the second-set surge that the Rebels leveled at the Owls on Saturday night, Blankenship said it must be comprised of talented players who have been prepared to deal with high degrees of difficulty by their coaches and the Owls obviously have that combination in place.
"They showed a great deal of character to succeed in that situation," Blankenship said.
College tennis coaches have a unique challenge in that they recruit players who have been developed in a sport that is individual in its nature to come in and adapt to a team environment. While the concept may be foreign to many, he noted it was revealing to see a young team close ranks and prosper as the Owls did last weekend.
"It takes a special coach to get individual players to buy into the team concept and produce a team win as they did at Ole Miss. Elizabeth (Schmidt) has done a great job with bringing this team along and having them show so much improvement over the course of this season," he noted.