Roll Tide to the SEC season!

Twelve matches in the books with another twelve to come. We finished up our non-conference slate last weekend in nearby Montgomery at the Blue Gray National Tennis Classic. We came away with a couple of wins against one defeat, and overall, experience a challenge, a response, significant contributions, fellowship and fanfare. Now it’s onto the main event of the Spring – SEC. Our conference promo tag states “It Just Means More” (meaning the SEC), but really at the end of the day, it’s a dozen more opportunities to face, gain from and have it propel us towards the post-season. There is no match that is any bigger than the other. They are all matches. Our performance will be analyzed by how we perform on court and our ability to execute through building, capitalizing, attacking and finishing. The scoreboard will show a result but won’t tell the whole story. We have prepared well through the first two months of the Spring for our bouts with those we have grown to like or not like, to compete at home or on the road, to travel via plane/bus/SUV, to eat/sleep/study/hydrate/stretch/rest/grow stronger/repeat and see it all culminate at the SEC Championships in Gainesville, Florida in late April. We are ready…are you?

Before focusing on this weekend’s show, let me touch on the Blue-Gray. A team favorite, the BG provided some necessary dry weather (albeit hot & humid), great competition, important lessons learned and continued memories built with the tournament staff and numerous volunteers, including our housing friends. A huge ROLL TIDE and THANK YOU to Arla Chandler (BG Chairman), Geoff Waring (BG Tournament Director), Steve Laro (Head Referee), Michael Butler (Deputy Referee), Sharon Wright (Referee Command Center), Kimberly Mathews (Housing Coordinator), Carol Luehrs (Hospitality Tent), Eva Sponseller (BG Committee), Fred and Chuck (Tournament Stringers), Lagoon Park Tennis Center Staff, O’Connor Tennis Center Staff, the city of Montgomery and the many, many volunteers (new & veteran) that gave their heart and soul to this event. On a more personal note, we give special thanks to our friends that opened up their homes to our boys, their appetites and kind-of-stinky clothes. These include Spud & Nancy Seale, Brooks & Jennifer Seale, Brooke & Melissa Lawson, Will & Amy Chapman and Peter & Margaret Ann Selman. What a weekend that we cherished and enjoyed celebrating with so many that simply have huge hearts and love college tennis.

On the courts we went into the tournament with a bit of a target on our backs as the top-seed. In the first round, we faced a tough Bulldog squad from Fresno State in randomly hot and humid conditions. Sophomore Sam Fischer stepped into the doubles lineup and paired with junior Alexey Nesterov for a gutty and clinching performance. Sam has spent countless hours on and off court, in and out of the classroom, improving in every sense of the word. Patrick Kaukovalta and Mazen Osama had won their match on court #1 while Edson Ortiz and Zhe Zhou were in front on court #2. Sam and Alexey had fallen behind quickly 0-4 before they put on the brakes and restarted their engine. A higher percentage of first serves, returns, crossing/poaching opportunities were created and it all added up to six straight games and a doubles point for the crimson and white. Point Bama! Roll Tide!

Onto the singles portion and the temps kept rising. It impacted a couple of our guys but also did the same to our opponents who didn’t expect it to be so sticky in February (but this is Alabama right?). Our guys competed well and embraced the heat for the most part in between towel wipes, sips of water & gatorade and careful time management. PK (Patrick) was first to strike, while Edson followed suit after the Dogs captured a win on court #1. Sophomore Jeremy Gschwendtner, who has also poured in many hours on the court, got the starting singles nod, and clinched the match on court #6 with a straight set victory. Match Bama! Roll Tide!

Following a break of a couple of hours, a familiar opponent stood on the opposite side of the net from us – Ole Miss. We began our second match under the lights with doubles and the quality seemed to rise. The Rebels were first to the finish line on court #3 while our roommate/teammate combo of Edson & Zhe evened up things with a win on court #2. It all came down to the top court where we had a chance to serve out the match 5-3, however were broken and ultimately sent into a deciding tiebreaker. After the first half of the breaker we found ourselves down 2-4 but battled back with first serves, returns and plenty of finishing volleys. After saving a couple of match points, the slow clap begin and our lanky Finn struck a massive first serve and solid first volley that created a forced error and a doubles point for the Crimson Tide. Point Bama! Roll Tide!

Everyone was pretty spent after BG Day 1, however, we needed to stretch, hydrate, refuel and rest because an even longer day was on tap for BG Day 2. I decided to give the guys a little extra time the next morning and we arrived for a shorter than usual warmup. The Rebels were ready to go when the first serve was struck, and we quite frankly, were not. Ole Miss grabbed five out of six first sets and we did our best to stay in the match. At one point we fell behind 1-3 before sophomore Riccardo Roberto put a point up on the scoreboard on court #6. The deficit was now 2-3 with Edson forcing a third set on court 2 but PK went down a break on court 2. The Rebs kept coming and their charge was too much for us. PK lost his match and swallowed that bitter pill as did the entire team. The preparation could have been better and I learned a lesson from that experience. Next.

Following a team meeting and coaches strategy session, the guys prepared themselves for our third and final match. Texas Tech, the tournament’s #2 seed, was upset as well in the second round, and faced us in the 3rd place match. We had played the Red Raiders at the BG before and knew of their success this season. It promised to be a battle. Doubles started off a little slow on some courts and quick on another. Patrick and Mazen claimed a win on court #1 but we failed to convert on the other pair of courts. Tech 1, Bama 0. We met by the large, sprawling oak tree as we did after each break in the action. Not much was said other than an announcement of the singles lineup and a reminder that the doubles point was just one point on the board. Jeremy and Riccardo were back in the lineup as Thibault nursed his wrist injury and Alexey battled a fever.

One other ‘newbie’ was a fan sitting in a cage along Mazen’s court – Monsour, the parakeet, sang tunes in his little home while his owner started banging balls here, there and everywhere. Mazen was quick out of the gates while El Toro raged along side winning point after point, game after game. PK competed like a true Norseman, while Jeremy and Riccardo captured first sets rather quickly. Zhe was battling and finding a way to extend his match to the best of his ability, not allowing Texas Tech to gain any momentum as the Crimson Tide was rolling along. Edson chalked up a win with authority sending a loud “Point Bama!” throughout the facility as it ignited more urgency with our squad. PK soon followed suit with a convincing win and then Mazen and Monsour claimed a victory of their own. Bama 3, Tech 1. Zhe went from 0-6, 0-3 down to 5-5 in the second set, showing his teammates that he was not going down. Jeremy’s opponent had inched ahead in the second set but Riccardo had a stronghold on his court pushing his Red Raider side to side, up high, down low, attacking, defending and finishing. The team stood alongside Zhe’s court pushing him along with cheers. Within a blink of an eye we heard Riccardo scream out “Point Bama!”…Match Bama! Roll Tide! Alabama 4, Texas Tech 1.

What a response to the Ole Miss outcome and a great way to finish the tournament. The guys had claimed victory after losing the doubles point…something that had eluded us for quite some time (March 11, 2016 if anyone was interested). A goal accomplished and progress made. After singing our fight song Yea’ Alabama, we all headed over to the home of Brooks and Jennifer Seale for a very tasty and well deserved dinner. We were joined by the other housing families and enjoyed more laughter, stories, and, of course, competition…on the pool table, where Zhe beat the surprising Grant Stuckey in the final of 8-ball. A great weekend overall. Thank you again Blue Gray.

Now we’re back at home, hosting our first outdoor rendition of Friday Night Lights. We’ve had several night practices to prepare for tonight’s showdown with LSU. We’ve had sun, rain, light winds and clouds. It’s all good as we’re not responsible for the weather…just the response. The Tigers are much improved from last season and will be a very tough team to face. It’s School of Engineering Night too as we recognize the Alabama Astrobotics Team and the EcoCAR. Alabama Astrobotics is a robotics team at The University of Alabama that competes each year in NASA’s Robotic Mining Competition at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, FL. They’ve captured several national championships (2015, 2016, 2017, 2018). The EcoCAR is a national competition which involved converting a new stock Camaro into a hybrid vehicle without losing anything on the performance and handling side.

On Sunday we welcome a familiar foe, Texas A&M. Last time we competed against the Aggies was in the 2018 NCAA Sweet 16. They got the upper hand on us that day and we will do our best to give them a little more this time around. The Crimson Racket Club is hosting a FREE grill out with master cook David Ford and cook-in-the-waiting Colin Martin serving up burgers and hot dogs. We might have rain but the show and grill out will go on as we will prepare for wet weather or sun. We look forward to seeing you at the courts, and if not, then catch us online with live streaming indoors or outdoors. As the SEC says, “it just means more”. Now it’s your time to check out why.

Roll Tide!