This weekend the UC Santa Cruz men’s tennis team will begin its quest for the eighth Division III national title since 1989, and this year, the road to the top begins right at home. On Monday, UCSC was officially named one of the eight host sites of the regional round of the Division III men’s tennis tournament.
UCSC was named host of the regional round after finishing at the top of its region this year. In an unusual twist, the Banana Slugs won their region but finished behind Claremont-Mudd-Scripps (CMS) in the national rankings due to a loss to Washington University at St. Louis. The result is that UCSC will be one of the eight regional hosts, but CMS will host the final three rounds as the last eight teams battle for the top spot.
With the tournament approaching quickly, both the players and their coach, Bob Hansen, are thankful for the home-court advantage they will enjoy this weekend. While Division III tennis doesn’t benefit from the raucous home crowds or stadiums that Division I football and basketball programs enjoy, sophomore Parker Larsen said the familiarity of playing on their own courts in front of their own fans is what the players will really benefit from.
“Being at home just creates a sense of comfort for the players,” Larsen said. “We practice there every day all year. It gives you an advantage and gets your opponents out of their comfort zone.”
Coach Hansen echoed this statement, emphasizing the importance of knowing the actual court on which the matches will take place.
“We’re definitely perfectly comfortable on [our] courts,” Hansen said. “We know the speed of the courts and how they bounce. All of that stuff adds to your energy and focus.”
The team is grateful for these advantages because they know that the competition this weekend will be difficult. Hansen said that the western region is “by far the hardest” out of the eight spread across the country. Three of the four teams playing at Santa Cruz this weekend are ranked in the top 10 in the nation, with the CMS Stags ranked third, UCSC ranked fourth and the Pomona-Pitzer Sagehens ranked eighth.
While the team prepares itself for the competition this weekend, the staff at OPERS and the athletic department are doing some preparation of their own. UCSC does not regularly host sporting events of this size, with the last time being the regional round of the NCAA men’s tennis tournament of 2008. The staff will be working to accommodate the increased number of visitors and participants in this weekend’s festivities.
This week has seen a flurry of meetings and conference calls between UCSC, the NCAA and delegations from the other three schools. Athletic director Linda Spradley said a serious amount of work went in before the tournament to set up the games and ensure that they run smoothly.
“People think it’s real easy, just sign a sheet of paper,” Spradley said. “It isn’t. It takes a lot of work — you put in a lot of hours. Once it gets going you can finally sit back and relax, but until then it’s a lot of work.”
With the tournament just two days away, the focus is shifting from the preparation to the performance of the Slugs this weekend. If the Slugs want to make a run at an eighth national title, they will have to win both home matches this weekend.
UCSC will open by playing Pomona-Pitzer, who are ranked eighth in the nation. If UCSC beats them, the team will advance to play the winner of the match between CMS and the University of Texas at Tyler. With CMS expected to beat Texas-Tyler, the Slugs are anticipating facing the Stags in the regional final.
UCSC has some history with CMS, having beaten them earlier this season to secure the top spot in the region. However, the players know that the early victory has only put a target on their backs for this weekend.
“[We have to] come in 100 percent and take out a team that is gunning for us,” Larsen said. “They’re going to be really fired up, wanting to take it to us, and we have to be ready to give it back.”
With a tough road ahead, the team remains confident that they are up to the task.
“Our kids are really committed,” Hansen said. “They’ve improved a lot this season, and they feel pretty good about where they are right now. I feel good about how deep their training has been, their commitment and how they’ve grown. I know they’ll come to play.”