Coming into his senior season, Sebastian Bell knew he couldn’t “earn” his spot in the Cal Poly men’s tennis lineup.
His name was only warming the No. 6 singles slot while fellow senior Matt Fawcett — a top-of-the-order talent — worked his way back from a knee injury.
When Fawcett was back, Bell was out. It was understood and accepted.
But with the Mustangs needing a Big West Tournament victory to clinch a spot for their second straight trip to this weekend’s NCAA team championships, they turned back to Bell, and he was able to earn that much for them.
Bell set up Saturday’s first-round NCAA matchup against No. 22 Texas Tech by beating UC Santa Barbara’s Max Glenn in a stirring three-set tiebreaker in the clinching match of a 4-3 Big West Conference Tournament championship final late last month.
“I just kept training the way I’d been doing the whole season when I was in the lineup and when I was doing well,” said Bell, who had an 11-4 dual record in singles while he was in the lineup this season.
“I didn’t really stop anything. I just kept playing the same way, training the same way and basically kept my level up the same way it was.”
When senior Brian McPhee was unavailable for the Big West Tournament with an injury, Bell stepped right in. He lost the first set to Glenn 6-4 but regrouped to take the second set 6-1 and took control of a 7-4 tiebreaker that started with four double faults.
It was the last match still going, and it tilted the victory to the Mustangs.
“I’ve got the most respect for Sebastian Bell,” McPhee said. “He’s the definition of hard work and never giving up because as a senior, he was taken out of the lineup midway through, and he didn’t step back one second. He practiced harder when other people would have just hung their rackets up. We were lucky enough to have him and his hard work, and he came out and had the biggest win in Cal Poly history.”
The Mustangs received the program’s first-ever at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament last season. It was also the program’s first overall.
This year, the invitation wasn’t a hand-out. The Mustangs took their first Division I conference title and the automatic berth that goes along with it.
“We won the conference title, we won the tournament and there’s more of a feeling of belonging,” Bell said. “We deserve to be there since we won the tournament. We’re the only Big West team going. From that perspective, I think that’s going to help us a lot.”
In last year’s trip to an NCAA Regional at Stanford, Cal Poly was blown away, 4-0, in the first round by Washington. The Huskies took the doubles point and won the first three singles matches before the other three were halted with the Mustangs trailing in each one.
After losing only one senior from that team, Cal Poly comes to this year’s regional at Cal more experienced and hoping that translates into composure. The Mustangs are certainly confident in first-year head coach Nick Carless, who was once part of a national championship-winning coaching staff at Pepperdine.
“He’s definitely been there before and that’s for sure going to help us,” Bell said. “Everything he’s tried to incorporate all throughout the year has been getting us ready for this moment. So I think when you add those things together, it will really help us at this stage.”
Said McPhee: “Now, we kind of expect a little more of ourselves. We’ve been through it before.
“Last year when we played Washington, maybe there was a little fear involved, but this year, we’ve been making history. We have arguably the best team in Cal Poly’s history, and we really don’t have any limits right now. We’re kind of setting our own limits.”
As for the matchup, the Red Raiders are beatable.
The Gauchos took a 4-3 victory over Texas Tech in March, proving that Big West-level talent is able to contend with a top-25 team.
The Red Raiders are led by Ecuadorian Gonzalo Escobar, the 40th-ranked singles player in the latest ITA poll. Cal Poly’s Andre Dome, the recently announced Big West Player of the Year, checks in right below at 41st. As a team, the Mustangs rank 63rd.
The rest of Texas Tech’s lineup is comprised of Brazilians — two seniors and three juniors — who have been to the postseason every season. Raony Carvalho is the highest rated at No. 75.
Racking up a 10-1 season record, Carvalho and Escobar are the Red Raiders’ top doubles combo. Cal Poly counters with Dome and Fawcett, who have earned an 11-1 record since being paired together midseason.
“We’re going to have to be ready to play long points,” Carless said. “We’re going to need to be fit, which we are and are used to, but they are definitely going to be the best team we’ve played all year. So, it’s going to require our best tennis to beat them.”