By Dylan Vazzano, TTU Sports Information Coordinator
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – The waiting is over. The time has come. The Tennessee Tech tennis team's appearance on the national stage has arrived.
For the third-consecutive season, and seventh time in program history, the Golden Eagles are in the NCAA Tournament. Tech is down in Starkville, Miss. to square off with No. 6 Mississippi State in Friday's first-round action, scheduled to get underway at 1 p.m. CT from the A.J. Pitts Tennis Centre.
Memphis and South Alabama will hook up in Friday's other first round matchup down in Starkville, with the winner slated to play the TTU-MSU victor in Saturday's second round at 1 p.m. The tournament is single-elimination format.
The Golden Eagles (10-11, 5-1 OVC) are coming off a thrilling run in the OVC Tournament, capturing the program's first ever three-peat with an exhilarating two days in Nashville. After claiming a 4-3 victory over Jacksonville State in the semifinals, TTU struck for revenge over top-seeded Belmont in a championship match for the ages.
After falling to the Bruins in a battle for the regular season title only eight days earlier, Tech wouldn't be denied now with the a berth in the NCAA Tournament at stake. Deadlocked 3-3 with the title hanging in the balance, freshman Riku Kubota rallied in the third set in the No. 5 singles clash, seizing the final three games for a 6-3 third-set win that gave the Golden Eagles the championship.
No. 66 Eduardo Mena and Jorge Alfonzo joined Kubota in the singles win column, while Mena and Gonzalo Garcia, along with Arthur Justo and Marc Mila took home doubles victories to lead Tech to a crucial doubles point in the title clash.
Mena enters his final NCAA Tournament as arguably the best to ever throw on the purple and gold. The two-time OVC Player of the Year recently took home his third All-OVC first team accolade after another sterling season that featured a 14-5 singles mark with a 5-1 record in OVC play.
Mena, who was also selected to be a part of the NCAA singles championships at the end of May, has already knocked off Mississippi State's No. 1 Nuno Borges. Mena took down the two-time SEC Player of the Year and nation's second-ranked player with a straight-set nod back in early October as part of the ITA Men's All-American Championship in Tulsa, Okla.
Albin, Tech's No. 2 singles competitor, posted an 11-9 singles mark during the spring, going 9-6 out of the No. 2 spot in the TTU lineup. In doubles play, the first-year Golden Eagle posted a 9-5 record, highlighted by a perfect 5-0 showing in OVC action.
Mila, Tech's No. 3 singles player, rattled off a 4-2 OVC record and teamed up with Arthur Justo for six doubles victories in Tech's top spot.
Freshman Gonzalo Garcia provided the Golden Eagles a powerful punch toward the bottom of the lineup with an 8-5 mark out of the No. 5 spot this spring. The Barcelona, Spain native also paced the club with 12 doubles wins during the 2018 campaign, holding down the fort with Eduardo Mena in the No. 3 spot to the tune of a 10-3 record.
Mississippi State (20-2, 11-1 SEC) earned the right to host the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament thanks in large part to a riveting run of its own in the SEC Tournament. After a second-place regular season finish in the SEC, the Bulldogs won the conference tourney behind a 4-3 win over fifth-ranked and top-seeded Texas A&M in the finals. Mississippi State's title marked the second since the SEC tourney went to a dual match format in 1990, with the other championship coming in 1996.
Five different Bulldogs, and head coach Matt Roberts, took home All-SEC honors, highlighted by the aforementioned Nuno Borges who was selected as the conference's Player of the Year. Borges, Giovanni Oradini and Strahinja Raki were named to the first team All-SEC, while Niclas Braun took home second team All-SEC honors and Florian Broska secured a spot on the All-Freshman team.
The Golden Eagles are 1-2 all time against the Bulldogs, topping Miss. State in 1971 and falling in 1974 and 2013.
No. 20 Memphis is making its sixth NCAA Championship appearance in seven seasons as the No. 2 seed in Starkville. The Tigers (18-5, 5-0 AAC) bowed out in the American Athletic Conference tournament semifinals and bring in two nationally ranked singles players, led by No. 35 Ryan Peniston.
South Alabama comes to Starkville after securing an automatic bid behind a Sun Belt Conference championship. This is USA's first NCAA Tournament appearances since 2008.
Photo by Tony Marable