No. 44 Seahawks Battle No. 17 Tennessee
Courtesy: UNCW Athletic Communications
By Samuel T.O. Branch, Athletic Communications Assistant
The 44th-ranked Seahawks are seeded third in the four-team regional and take on the No. 2-seeded Volunteers at 9 a.m. Saturday. The victor takes on the winner of the matchup between host and top-seed UNC Chapel Hill and fourth-seeded College of Charleston for the right to advance to the NCAA's Final 16 in Athens, Ga.
"As we get closer to the event, you can feel the juices going," said Mait DuBois, UNCW's fifth-year coach. "Our group is very competitive and they need that next competition. Our focus has definitely gone up an extra notch."
Tennessee, tied for 17th in the ITA rankings with fellow Southeastern Conference power Auburn, stands 14-13 overall and reached the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament. Despite returning just one starter from a team that claimed back-to-back SEC titles, the Volunteers have remained formidable behind a trio of talented freshmen.
Newcomer Mikelis Libietis leads the group, playing all of his singles matches at the No. 1 position and compiling a 12-12 record. The All-SEC selection is ranked 28th nationally.
UT's other two freshmen, No. 72 Hunter Reese and Brandon Fickey, have combined to play all but one of Tennessee's matches in the No. 2 or No. 3 positions. The duo has posted dual match records of 14-11 and 10-13. Libietis and Reese also form the 12th-ranked doubles team in the nation with a 16-8 mark at No. 1 doubles.
DuBois is familiar with Tennessee's program and prefers to concentrate on his own personnel. "We've seen some of their players around the fall tournaments, but we really try to focus more on ourselves. While we know what they're going to bring, we're just going to play Seahawk style tennis.
"The last week's been a balance with final exams. We've been spending a lot of time on the return and on effective strategies for holding our serve. At the end of the day, if we return well, we're going to have our chances to win."
UNCW brings a 17-6 overall record and a runner-up finish in the Colonial Athletic Association Championships into the weekend's play.
Sophomore Rafael Aita leads the Seahawks with a 17-4 singles record, including an 11-4 mark in the top position. Aita, ranked 95th, upset USC's Daniel Nyugen, No. 16 nationally at the time, in straight sets earlier this season.
Juniors Kosta Blank and Chris Cooprider, meanwhile, have been a force for UNCW in doubles with an 18-4 mark - all in the top slot.
The Seahawks and Volunteers have only met once and UT claimed a 7-0 victory in 2008. The squads have had two common opponents this season, however. UNCW lost to No. 48 South Carolina, 4-3, on Feb. 18, and defeated No. 33 Memphis, 5-2, on Feb. 26. The Volunteers lost to Memphis, 4-3, in the squad's season opener on Jan. 20, but downed No. 22 South Carolina, 5-2, on March 4th.
Following the UNCW-UT match, UNC and CofC collide at Noon. Saturday's winners then battle at 1 p.m. Sunday for the opportunity to move into the Round of 16.