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FACING GIANTS: Bears Playing 4-Time Defending Champion Trojans

May 16, 2013

By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Insider

Winning the last four national championships in a row and 17 altogether, the USC men's tennis team is right there with John Wooden's elite men's basketball program at UCLA in the 1960s and '70s and Bud Wilkinson's football powerhouse at Oklahoma in the 1950s.

"I would hope that you wouldn't ever see that again," said Baylor coach Matt Knoll, whose 13th-seeded Bears (22-5) face the fourth-seeded Trojans (25-4) at 4 p.m. Thursday in the third round of the NCAA Championships in Urbana, Ill. "I think a lot of what that points to is Stevie Johnson. They had the best player in college tennis for three years. Historically, that guy turns pro after his sophomore year. And the fact that he kept coming back to win championships was a real difference-maker for them."

Even without Johnson and Daniel Nguyen - "a guy that doesn't get a lot of credit, but never lost a match in the NCAA Tournament" - USC has continued to roll on this year. The Trojans' only losses came against second-seeded Virginia and top-seeded UCLA (three times).

"They've got a great nucleus of players, a bunch of guys that have won something," Knoll said. "I'm sure they're going to play with a lot of pride, and it's going to be a heck of a challenge for us."

In the latest ITA poll, USC has seven singles players and four doubles teams ranked among the nation's best. And that doesn't even include freshman Max de Vroome, who was ranked earlier this year and won his spots in the opening-round wins over Sacramento State and San Diego.

Juniors Emilio Gomez and Ray Sarmiento lead the way at Nos. 7 and 16, respectively, followed by sophomores Roberto Quiroz, Yannick Hanfmann, Eric Johnson and Jonny Wang at Nos. 36, 45, 90 and 98.

"We know who they are," said Baylor sophomore Mate Zsiga, a returning All-American who is ranked 84th, "but this is not the time of the year to really think about the statistics or numbers or how many times or the winning streaks and all that stuff. We've just got to focus on ourselves. We know they have really good players, but nobody is unbeatable. If we play our game, if everybody is focused, we have a good chance. The chance is always there."

Baylor is not exactly a newcomer to this stage. The Bears are making their 12th straight appearance in the Round of 16 and had a string of 10 consecutive quarterfinals snapped with last year's 4-0 loss to eighth-seeded Duke.

"It's something we're proud of. We really hang our hat on the fact that we've gone (to the NCAA Championship's final site) year-in and year-out," Knoll said.

"Twelve years in a row is something we feel great about, and that's one of the things that is a goal for us. We want to be good at the end. That's something I talk about all the time. That's something our guys have really taken to heart."

Although it's been nine years since Baylor won the national team title and eight since the Bears have been in the final, Knoll said, "It's hard for us to look at everything we've accomplished here and feel like we're the underdog. We've won a championship, we know what it takes."

In a similar matchup, Baylor upset three-time defending national champion Stanford in 1999 to reach the quarterfinals for the first time in program history.

"By this stage of the tournament, it's just two teams that are very good teams that are going to play good tennis. And it's just going to be a matter of can we out-execute them and out-focus them and play with a higher energy level. And if we can do that, then I think we're going to have a great chance."

The level of competition isn't anything new, either. In a seven-day stretch back in March, the Bears knocked off fifth-ranked Kentucky before losing three straight to UCLA, Virginia and No. 4 Ole Miss.

"That's the reason we play the schedule we do is we want to be comfortable playing this level of competition," Knoll said. "We played UCLA and Virginia, who are the two top seeds in this tournament. So, we know what the level is out there. And I think our guys are excited. We think we're playing our best tennis, and we think we'll play our best match. And I can't think of a better way to do it than to play the four-time defending champions."

Baylor has won 12 of its last 13, including a 4-2 second-round win over Tulsa that avenged a 5-2 loss to the Golden Hurricane earlier in the year.

"When we found out that Tulsa was coming to town, we were really happy about it," Zsiga said. "We were really excited to show them who the better team is. And we did that. We showed them who the better team is now."

Zsiga was one of five Baylor players in the latest ITA singles rankings. Newcomers Patrick Pradella, Julian Lenz and Tony Lupieri are 24th, 55th and 109th, respectively, while sophomore Marko Krickovic is 68th.

"I think the whole team is playing really good now," Zsiga said. "This is the part when all the hard work comes out, like what we did last fall and all of the spring semester. . . . We're not afraid at all. All the pressure is on their team. We're facing the four-time defending champion USC, so we couldn't be more excited to break their winning streak."

The Baylor-USC winner advances to the quarterfinals on Saturday to face either fifth-seeded Ohio State or No. 12 Texas A&M.

"We're going to have to win some of the moments," Knoll said. "There are going to be moments in the match where you've got to be ready to step up and take charge - a tiebreaker, two breaks down, whatever might come. When you feel the momentum getting away from you, you've got to be able to handle those situations. And I think the schedule we've played will hopefully help us do that."

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