April 24, 2017
by Chuck Pool (firstname.lastname@example.org) - Murfreesboro, TN--For nearly two and half hours, Old Dominion seemed on its way to capturing its first Conference USA Men's Tennis Championship and dethroning the Rice Owls, who defeated the Monarchs for the title in 2016.
But that dream came crashing down in a furious 15 minutes of final action as the Owls completed an improbable rally, overcoming a 3-0 deficit while playing outside their element indoors and repeating as conference kings with a 4-3 win at the Adams Tennis Center on Sunday.
Sophomore Jake Hansen epitomized the scrappy resilience of the Owls by sloughing off the impact of being broken with the championship on his racquet at 5-4 to break back and then serve out the match to earn the 40th ranked Owls a 23rd victory on the year and an automatic berth in the NCAA Championship.
"To play indoors all three matches, two of them against opponents who play the majority of their matches indoors and to have all four matches to end within 15 minutes of each other was phenonimal," Rice head coach Efe Ustundag said.
"It's always tough on the road," Hansen said. "Last season we played a lot more home matches but this year was different and I think that prepared us for this tournament. And we got a little bit lucky," he added.
After a workmanlike win over UTSA in the quarters that was delayed three hours because of weather and a grueling test on Saturday against the host Blue Raiders, the Owls knew their greatest test awaited them in the final in Old Dominion and from the outset of doubles, it was clear to Ustundag that Monarchs were well prepared to unseat the Owls.
"I felt like we played a little nervous in doubles," Ustundag said. `I think we were very concerned about defending . We didn't play loose. Old Dominion came out with a great gameplan. They executed well and really took the doubles point to us. It wasn't very close, honestly," he added.
However when singles began, the Owls trademark grit began to assert itself, particularly in the middle of the order featuring Tommy Bennett, David Warren and Hansen.
"It's been our character for the last couple of years that we really fight on every court," Ustundag stated. "But when you have David, Jake and Tommy in the middle of the lineup and they give everything they've got every match it makes a big difference."
The Owls set their comeback from doubles in place early, winning four of six first sets. That grit was given no room for error as the Monarchs extended the lead to 3-0 before Bennett broke through on the scoreboard with a taught 7-5, 7-5 win over Michael Weindl and Emanuel Llamas shook of a second set loss to cruise in the third and down Justin Herrera 6-3, 3-6, 6-2.
Warren shook off his own loss in the second set, to tie the match with a 6-1, 4-6, 6-2 win over Javier Jover Maestre, setting the stage for Hansen's clinching heroics.
It wasn't the first time in his career at Rice where Hansen set off a raucous celebration, having delivered the clinching point in the Owls upset of ninth ranked Texas Tech as a freshman. But it's a feeling that never gets old. "Clinching is always the best," Hansen said. "The feeling you get when all the guys rush on to the court , there's nothing like it . It's what college tennis is all about. "
Ustundag said the win and the corresponding berth in the NCAA tournament were targets for the team from the start of the year.
"It's a well-earned championship. Our first goal this year was to defend our title. I felt like if by playing tough competition during the year that we might put ourselves in position to earn and at-large berth, but this was the main goal."
The repeat victory was the Owls first at the conference level since they took five consecutive Southwest Conference titles from 1969-72.
The field for the NCAA Championship will be announced on May 2, with competition taking place from May 12-14.