by Chuck Pool (email@example.com) -
They first stepped on to a tennis court as Rice Owls during a downswing for the program, but as their college careers enter the final stanzas, seniors Tommy Bennett, Henrik Munch and David Warren have a chance to add one additional milestone to an impressive list of accomplishments.
When they join with their teammates to take on 26th ranked Cornell at 10 a.m. on Friday at the Hurd Tennis Center in Waco in the opening round of the NCAA Championship, they do so as the first back-to-back conference champions since 1972 and will be looking to register the Owls first win in the NCAA Championship since 2010.
Ithaca, New York
Freshmen Spark Owls Over Cornell
Freshmen Jake Hansen and Emanuel Llamas clinched the doubles point and then added wins in singles to spark No. 50 Rice to a 4-1 win over No. 60 Cornell at the Reis Tennis Center in Ithaca, New York on Friday.
They will also be looking to tie the school record for dual wins with their 24th, while their 46 wins over the last two seasons already ranks as the best two-year mark in school history. Rice enters NCAA action with a 23-7 mark, one win shy of the 24-4 mark set in 2004.
It's an impressive resume that was hard to predict when the three first came to South Main.
Bennett arrived in the fall of 2012 as part of Efe Ustundag's first recruiting class. In his first two years, he saw the Owls compile a 21-27 combined record, two shy of the team's total in each of the last two years. Warren arrived the following fall and Munch in time for the 2014 spring campaign in which Rice was 10-13.
"I don't do an awful lot of looking back, but it is rewarding and satisfying to reflect back on what the program was when I first arrived, Bennett said. " It was Efe and Bojan's first year when I arrived. The team camaraderie my freshman year was more disjointed and I don't think our goals were shared by everyone on the team, whereas we've all be driving for that conference championship the last two years."
"I still recall my freshman year when we were 2-9 on the season and we get our third win--over a ranked team (4-3 at 69th ranked San Diego State, with Bennett delivering the clinching point)--and we just went ballistic," Warren recalled. "It's crazy to see how much the team has evolved to reach the level of success we have had the last two years. I never would have guessed this is where we would be four year later."
"It's been great to see how the team has evolved from what it was when I first got here," Munch said. "Efe and Bojan have done a great job of building up the team. We've come a long way from my first year to now be a team going back to the NCAA's for a second straight year." The three began their careers in the waning days of Jake Hess Tennis Stadium, but depart having hung a pair of conference titles in the new home, the George R. Brown Tennis Center.
Bennett and Warren were mainstays in those back-to-back titles, with Warren delivering the clinching point to win their first title in 2016. Munch spent much of those early years as a reserve, but he was on the court in doubles as they earned a repeat title and will be a part of the effort against a Cornell team the Owls have seen in the past, but also know will hardly resemble the team they have beaten in the last two meetings.
The Big Red (21-3) shared the Ivy League title this year, matching Columbia and Harvard with a 6-1 league mark and earned their second title in school history and earned their second-ever NCAA berth.
"We know it's going to be a much different team than we have seen over the last several years," Warren said. "We have the confidence because this will be more like a home match for us as opposed to when we traveled to Ithaca last year. We know it's going to be tough but we are happy to have a shot to play them and see how it goes."
Rice used a decidedly homeward bound path to its C-USA title in 2016, posting a 19-1 mark at the George R. Brown Tennis Center and winning the conference title on their home ground. That season ended in a pulse-pounding 4-3 loss to LSU in the Ft. Worth Regional.
This season, they only played 13 matches in the friendly confines, but a slew of tough road tests produce some significant wins, including an upset of No. 16 South Carolina to win the Blue Gray National Tennis Classic and a pair of nail-biting wins over Middle Tennessee and Old Dominion to repeat as C-USA titles.
Bennett hopes the heavy travel schedule will help the Owls this weekend.
"We want to go at least one step further than last year where we lost a heartbreaker to LSU but played a great tennis match," he said. "I hope that experience will come into play as well as the experience from playing so many road matches this year. "
"Winning conference was definitely one of our big goals each of the last two years, but winning matches in the postseason is the next goal," Warren noted. "We want to see how we can take the experience of being a two-time conference champion and turning that into a couple wins in the NCAA tournament."
Munch watched the Owls battle vs. LSU from the sidelines, but he knows he's in a for a vastly different experience this year.
"It's nice to know that I'll get to play in the NCAA's this year. It will be a new experience for me. I'll be ready and hopefully I'll be able to help the team achieve its goal. I'm just going to try and relax and enjoy the moment and see where it takes me."
With the end of finals, the GRBTC has been a hive of activity as both the Rice men and women prepared for a return to the NCAA Championship.
"It's really exciting time here, Bennet said. "We're done with finals, we're done with the regular season and we're both preparing for the NCAA's as conference champions. Both teams are ready for fight for another goal, to go deep into the postseason."
"It's cool to see that we've helped the program develop but it also has a lot of room to grow," Warren noted. "I think that's the most exciting thing about Rice Tennis."