By Rob Moseley
When the Oregon men’s tennis team gathered to kick off its 2013-14 season, players wrote out their goals for the year.
Though the Ducks hadn’t played in the NCAA Tournament in a decade, they were projected to be the deepest, most talented team in head coach Nils Schyllander’s eight years. Thus, players weren’t shy about where they wanted to see this season end.
“We started small with day-to-day things,” freshman Jayson Amos said, “but at the end it was to make the NCAA Tournament. That was our big goal, for sure.”
Mission: accomplished. The Oregon men are in Athens, Ga., this weekend and open tournament play Saturday at 7 a.m. PT as the No. 3 seed in the regional, facing No. 2 North Carolina State. Host Georgia, the top seed for the regional, plays Jacksonville State afterward, and the first-round winners face off Sunday at 10 a.m.
Tournament participation is just the latest milestone in this historic season for the Ducks. So far it has included beating the highest-ranked opponent ever, No. 15 Boise State on March 2; Oregon’s first-ever top 25 ranking of its own, No. 24 on March 26; and the first conference tournament victory, over rival UW, one of two Pac-12 Tournament wins that earned the Ducks a trip to NCAAs.
The next milestone would be to win a point in NCAA competition, after 4-0 losses in 1998, 2000 and 2004. And of course, the Ducks would like nothing more than to be playing on Sunday, proving they weren’t simply satisfied to make the NCAA field.
“It’s not too hard to keep pushing,” Amos said. “Winning is winning. It’s a great feeling to win, and we know how bad losing feels. That’s enough encouragement.
“We’re definitely not satisfied. We know the opportunity we’ve been given, and we’re going to do our best to make the most of it.”
The Ducks will be looking to carry over the momentum they built at the Pac-12 Tournament, where they beat not only Washington for the second time in three meetings this season, but third-seeded Stanford as well. That was the latest upswing in what’s been somewhat of a rollercoaster season for the Oregon men.
Schyllander’s team began this season 14-1, tying its best start in 20 years. The hot start included wins at home over the Huskies and No. 14 Boise State, and a win on the road that ended No. 39 Drake’s 37-match home win streak.
But the Ducks lost seven of eight to close the season. That stretch began with tough home matches against No. 1 USC and No. 5 UCLA, and ended with four straight losses on the road, including to the Huskies and Cardinal. Suddenly, an NCAA appearance that seemed likely earlier in the spring was in doubt.
“We realized we had to do some work now again, to get back in the win column,” said senior Robin Cambier, who set the UO career record for singles wins this season, and is tied for the team lead this year with Amos at 23.
That quest began at Pac-12s with a rematch against Washington just four days after the loss to the Huskies in the season finale. Oregon won that match, 4-2, then upset the Cardinal in the quarterfinals 4-3.
The Ducks lost the doubles point to Stanford, and trailed in the first set of four of six singles matches before rallying to win. They went on to lose to UCLA in the semifinals, but were solidly back on the NCAA bubble before being selected for the field April 29.
“That really had that tournament atmosphere,” Schyllander said. “If we can duplicate the energy we played with there, I feel pretty good.”
The Ducks endured tough training last week, preparing for the intensity – and hot weather – of playing in Georgia as best they could.
“We’ve been with our backs against the wall a couple times this season,” Cambier said. “Now we’ve got to play every match like it’s the last one, because it could be. That’s what we did at Pac-12s and it worked for us. So now we’ve just got to do the same thing at NCAAs.”