Fresh on the heels of a 4-2 victory over New Mexico State in the finals of the WAC Championships, the Vandals may have gotten the toughest first round draw of the entire field in getting the top-seeded USC Trojans.
“They are a very good team with a lot of good players,” Idaho coach Jeff Beaman said. “If you’re going to play somebody good, you might as well go play the best.”
The Trojans rolled through the Pac-12 this season, going 7-0 in conference play and racked up 17 straight victories before being upset in the Pac-12 Championship by UCLA — who also handed them a second loss on Feb. 25. The only other team to defeat USC this season was Ohio State, the tournament’s No. 2 overall seed. UCLA is the No. 6 seed in the tournament.
The Vandals are going into the NCAA Tournament riding a season long four-match winning streak and are playing, what Beaman said, is the best tennis they’ve played all year.
Although the Vandals are new to the NCAA field, senior Artemiy Nikitin isn’t. While at South Carolina State, he helped the Bulldogs win a MEAC championship and competed in the 2013 NCAA tournament at No. 3 singles.
After tinkering with the doubles lineup behind Cristobal Ramos Salazar and Jose Bendeck for most of the season, Beaman found two pairings that he liked with Odon Barta and Andrew Zedde at No. 2 and Cesar Torres and Nikitin at No. 3. The strong doubles play helped the Vandals finish the season strong, after stumbling out of the gates.
“We don’t have any pressure,” Nikitin said. “We have the confidence to compete from the first point to the last point and you never know what can happen. It will be a tough match against a tough team. They are No. 1 but we don’t care, we are going to compete.”
There are precedents supporting his confidence. Last year Denver, the team which Idaho fell to in the WAC championship match last season, went on to beat No. 9 seed Florida in the NCAA tournament last year. Upsets happen in most sports in NCAA tournaments, not just men’s and women’s basketball.
Beaman said he doesn’t expect his team to lay down just because the Trojans are the top-seeded team in the tournament. The team underachieved for most of the season, but they showed late in the year how talented they really were, he said.
The Vandals have a little over a week to prepare for the No. 1 team in the nation. The team will be working hard to get ready for what could be its final match of the season, and in the case of the four senior Vandals, the last match of their careers. The break is giving the team a chance to rest and prepare both mentally and physically said Torres, one of the four seniors on the team.
“It will be a good experience for us,” fellow senior Bendeck said. “We go there with no pressure. We know it’s the No. 1 team in the nation. We just have to enjoy the moment and play as hard as we can and just leave it all there.”
The Vandals were able to go toe-to-toe with the No. 22 ranked Boise State Broncos. Although the Vandals ended up losing, they had five singles matches go into a decisive third set. Beaman thinks it boosted the confidence of the team and demonstrated that they could hang with anyone in the country.
The Vandals also went toe-to-toe with Washington, who rose as high as No. 44 in the ITA national rankings.
The strong play down the stretch is a potential sign of things to come, as Idaho enters the Big Sky Conference next season. Victories over perennial Big Sky powerhouses Sacramento State and Montana might put the rest of the conference on notice that despite having a down year, Idaho could factor into the race next season.
The Vandal women also qualified for the NCAA tournament and will be traveling to Los Angeles to face the Trojan’s women’s team as well. Beaman, the Director of Tennis overseeing both programs, requested to the NCAA to send both the men’s and women’s team to the same location, so he wouldn’t need to decide which team to go with. The women’s team has been without a coach this season after former women’s coach Myriam Sopel left for UTEP before the season began. After a series of conversations and phone calls with other coaches and members of the NCAA committee, a viable solution was worked out for Beaman.
Luckily for him, he won’t have to coach both teams at the same time as he did during the WAC Championship games for both teams. The women will play on May 9 with the men going on May 10, so he won’t need to cover 12 courts simultaneously as he did during the WAC Championships.
The coaching situation put an added emphasis on the assistant coaches and players who, at times, had to practice and travel without Beaman, but Nikitin felt that needing to practice on their own sometimes helped the team improve as whole.
Should the Vandals pull the upset over USC, they will face the winner of the Oklahoma State and Michigan in the round of 32.
Joshua Gamez can be reached at email@example.com