April 13, 2012
On the surface, a 6-1 verdict hardly would merit the headline above.
But while the scoreboard says that the Rice Owls narrowly averted a shutout in their showdown with 26th ranked Tulsa, the details of the match reveal a tautly contested match between Conference USA's perennial finalists.
From the doubles point that was in doubt until a key service break in the 11th game of the decisive match at No. 2 to four singles tie-breaker sets and four three-set matches, the two schools slugged it out on the Jake Hess Tennis Stadium courts for over four hours.
"The score was not indicative of the type of match it was," Rice head coach Ron Smarr said. "But the difference between a team ranked in the 20's and one in the 40's is having the ability to close out matches and take advantage of your opportunities. Tulsa showed why they have been a top 20 team all year, and one that will probably jump up even higher in the next rankings."
The Golden Hurricane's sixth-ranked doubles duo of Clifford Marsland and Ashley Watling lived up to their rankings with an 8-2 win at No. 1 doubles to open the match. But Sam Garforth-Bles and Leif Berger struck back with an 8-5 win at No. 3 to place the first point focus on the remaining match at No. 2.
Rice's Michael Nuesslein and Jonathan Chang took a 5-4 lead after holding serve, only to have Tulsa's Grant Ive and Tristan Jackson break them twice down the stretch to capture an 8-5 win and give Tulsa an early 1-0 lead.
With a lineup that featured three ranked singles players on a team that has five wins over top 30 teams, including a 4-3 win at Baylor on Wednesday night, the Owls face an uphill challenge.
That challenge grew more difficult after Tulsa took straight set wins at No. 3 and 4. But the final four matches would produce four tiebreaker sets and each required three sets to complete. Rice would win three of the four tiebreakers, but it was Tulsa who emerged with wins in three of the four extended matches.
Sophomore Philipp Seifert produced the Owls' only win of the afternoon, winning a third-set tiebreak by a 7-1 score to down Tulsa's Lucian Gheorghe 6-2, 4-6, 7-6 (7-1).
The Owls will close out the 2012 regular then celebrate Senior Day when they host Texas Arlington on Sunday. First serve is scheduled for 1 p.m. at Jake Hess Tennis Stadium. Along with seniors Sam Garforth-Bles, Nuesslein, Christian Saravia and Andy Wang, the match will be Smarr's final match at Jake Hess, as college tennis' winningest coach will retire at the end of the 2012 season. But he cautioned his team to not get caught up in the emotions of the day and not fall into the trap of taking UTA lightly.
"They beat UTSA (who beat Rice 4-3 earlier this season) so we have to move past this match and make sure we show up on Sunday focused and ready to play," Smarr said. "We can still make the NCAA's, but we have to work to do to make it happen."