The Cal Poly men’s tennis team lost its best player, then lost its first seven dual matches this season.
But the Mustangs never lost sight of what was left to win.
“That’s kind of the character of the team,” said Cal Poly head coach Justin McGrath, whose Mustangs rebounded from early adversity to earn the top seed in the Big West Conference Tournament and have a bye into Saturday’s semifinals.
“The guys never folded the tents to go home. We all just kind of stayed together, and it’s testament to them.”
Win the next two, and the Mustangs will be on to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in Division I program history. This despite their top singles player — sophomore Andre Dome — being out for the season with a hip injury and all of the early season losses.
The Cal Poly women, who play Cal State Northridge in the Big West quarterfinals at the tournament’s host site in Indian Wells today, have had their full stable of seniors leading the way all season.
The Mustangs are hoping to unseat six-time defending champion Long Beach State, and head coach Hugh Bream believes there’s no better time for his team to break the spell now that his six-woman lineup is populated by four impact seniors: Brittany Blalock, Suzie Matzenauer, Steffi Wong and Diane Filip.
“We’re training hard enough to go all the way,” Bream said. “There’s not a fitter team in the tournament. There’s not a more experienced team in the tournament. I believe we’re the best prepared team here.”
Long Beach State (17-5, 8-0 Big West) ran through the conference undefeated and is favored to win its seventh straight conference title and automatic berth in the 64-team NCAA Tournament.
After the 49ers, three women’s teams came in at 6-2, including Cal Poly (15-6 overall), UC Santa Barbara and UC Irvine. Long Beach State freshman Jaklin Alawi was quoted in the Daily 49er saying the Mustangs were the strongest challenger.
Ranked just outside the nation’s top 60, Cal Poly is on the outside of the bubble for an at-large tournament berth, with Bream all but certain his team needs to win the tournament to keep its season going.
Blalock and Matzenauer — who defeated the No. 2 team in the country at one point — are likely to get the conference’s automatic bid to the 32-team individual NCAA doubles tournament for being the Big West’s highest ranked duo, but the Mustangs as a whole would see their season end if they don’t win it all this weekend.
It could mean the Mustangs will have to go through Long Beach State, which defeated Cal Poly 5-2 while winning five of six singles matches earlier this year and hasn’t lost a regular season Big West dual since 2007.
“It’s hard not to give them a lot of credit because six straight years in a single elimination format is pretty darn special,” Bream said.
The Mustangs men (8-13, 4-1 Big West) — regular season conference champions but still in need of a tournament win to advance in the postseason — have been bolstered by the emergence of two players in their first season with Cal Poly.
After losing Dome, a former Arroyo Grande High standout, McGrath put true freshman Jordan Bridge in the No. 1 slot. He’s also gotten a major contribution at No. 2 from Old Dominion transfer Matt Fawcett, a Cape Town, South Africa, native.
Fawcett has also teamed with Robert Foy to make up one of Cal Poly’s top doubles teams.
McGrath said he expected Fawcett, a junior, to step right in and contribute, since he was already familiar with the college circuit from his two seasons at Old Dominion.
The coach would have liked to have brought Bridge along slower in his first season but said the freshman from Irvine has performed well in his first collegiate season.
“I tried him playing between that 3 and 4 position,” McGrath said. “I just felt like he’s got a big enough game, let’s put him up high, let’s see what he can do. And he just kind of grew up before my eyes. It was an experiment, and it worked. It could have went the other way.”
With Foy being the team’s lone senior and Dome set to return fully healed from surgery next season, the Mustangs appear to have set themselves up for an even better season next year.
But they aren’t ready to prepare for next season quite yet.
Cal Poly rebounded well from that 0-7 start. The Mustangs have won six of their past nine duals, and their only loss in the Big West was a narrow 4-3 defeat to Pacific on March 1.
“We’re definitely on a high that’s for sure,” McGrath said. “We had an extremely tough schedule at the beginning of the year. Now the schedule has paid off, and we’re playing our best tennis right now.
“With that said, we haven’t done anything yet. The goal of this team is to win the conference tournament and get to the NCAA Championship.”