May 19, 2005
Lexington, Ky. –
The Florida State University men’s tennis team has had quite a runs this season. Since joining the team as a freshman in the fall I have been introduced to a group of charismatic, hard-working lads who will do anything to win and achieve the greatest goals at the toughest stakes. This spring hasn’t been easy for us. We have been through ups and downs on and off the court but every experience we have had together has helped us on our way. The mistakes we have made, we learned from and progressed. The losses we encountered, we wept together but got back up from the ground and became stronger and hungrier.
The season started with the team getting together in a meeting to map out some specific goals we wanted to achieve in the upcoming season. Such goals as winning the doubles point 20 out of the 24 times was achieved emphatically while others such as winning the ACC tournament, we came just short.
The final goal on the list was to host the NCAA regional event and to make it to the final site. We came just short of completing the former, jumping from a preseason ranking of 45 to a current ranking of 18, two places shy of hosting. However, we still had every intention of reaching the final site and if that meant going on the road and upsetting a top 16 team, then so be it.
Our draw meant us traveling to the home of the No.11 team in the country Kentucky. They were to play Butler in the first round and we had Ball State. On Thursday 12th May we set off to the airport bright and early and made our way to Lexington, Kentucky. I love traveling with these guys. The energy we have on the road is remarkable. Whether it’s Jeff Grolimond bouncing off the walls or Chip Webb, sitting on his own with a great grin on his face as he talks on the phone to his girlfriend, these guys all bring something to a table. Even the coaches get involved. I remember recently Dwayne Hultquist, our head coach, getting in on a joke we had planned for one of our players on a flight home.
When we arrived in Lexington we checked into a very nice hotel and then headed straight to the courts for a practice to get us used to the courts. This practice lasted a couple of hours as we hit a little indoors and a little out, not knowing what the weather would bring us on Saturday. Thursday ended with a team dinner at Outback. The conversation at dinner was interesting and we learned a side to Jonathas Sucupira that we didn’t know before.
On Friday we had the entire day to prepare for the next day’s game. Coach Hultquist decided to split the day by having us practice our doubles in the morning and singles in the afternoon. I made my contribution to the practice by playing doubles against Chip and Jonathas with my partner being assistant coach Nick Crowell. Nick is a great player and his energy and hunger to win sparks our practices on a daily basis. The practice set went well. We gave our number three doubles team a good practice, at least until I served four double faults in the final service game.
In the early afternoon the whole team went to the movies to relax a little and we finished the day by having another practice late in the afternoon. After that we were ready to compete. As the team went to bed nice and early, Eric Lazo, a team assistant flew in late to join up with the team. Arriving in the early hours, he got straight to stringing all the rackets for the guys for their match the next day. The team really appreciates what he and his counterpart, Scott Hernandez, have done this season.
Not much can be said about our first round game against Ball State on Saturday. The only challenge we had was the rain that forced us to play indoors, a venue where we did not hold a good record. However, knowing that if we wanted to achieve greatness we would have to beat obstacles, we did not let this issue get to us. Taking my seat on the bench as I have done all season, I didn’t even have to get rowdy, as I comfortably watched the team win 4-0 in a short time. Ytai Abougzir, a winner on the day, seemed to win his match with energy to spare; energy he would need for the somewhat tougher match the following day.
The next day would mark probably the greatest day in FSU men’s tennis history. We have had our big wins over the years, but making it to the Sweet 16 means the team has done great things over the entire season. No team in school history has ever made it to the final site. In order to reach the Promised Land we would have to defeat the Kentucky on Sunday.
We ate breakfast at 8.30 and began our warm up at noon to prepare for our 1 o’clock match. Nick and I performed our routine doubles warm up to prepare the teams for the great challenge ahead of them. The doubles point went down to the wire. We won the first doubles match convincingly as Ytai and Mat Cloer prevailed at the number two 8-3. No-one deserves to reach the final site more than Mat. He has given everything to this team over his four year career and these his last few weeks remaining have proven to be the pay off.
The second match to come off went to Kentucky as they won the number three spot. This meant it came down to our number one team, Jeff and his partner Chris Westerhoff. Their match went the distance and at times both teams had match points. The closest we came to losing the doubles point came when we were match point down in the tie break, only to see the Kentucky player choke an easy forehand into the net. Somehow we scraped through the match and came away with the doubles point, a huge point and one always needed in close matches.
The singles was a grind in every sense of the word. Learning from the guys this season, I have noticed that it takes more than just hitting the ball to win a college tennis match. Mind games play a significant role. This could be seen across the line up but no more than on courts three and five, where Jeff and Jonathas were playing respectively. Jeff had a wild match against an opponent who knows how to push buttons. Despite the distractions from his opponent, Jeff wouldn’t have any of it though. He won the first set, dropped the second, and hung around long enough in the third before Chip could seal the match.
Jeff’s match was extremely intense and his opponent’s tactics raised a few eyebrows. Even the calm personality of Jeff’s father was awakened in the moment as he arose from his seat and expressed his emotions. On the other courts, Mat and Chris both lost tough matches, Ytai won his match in a dominant fashion, and Jonathas fought through his with his wicked ground strokes and even more intimidating screams. Even Sam Chang, who was sidelined an injury, and I got caught in the moment and screamed to the top of our lungs as Jonathas pounded his ground strokes around, over, and through his opponent.
With the score 3-2 in favor, Jeff and Chip were the only ones still on the court. Jeff was hanging on to dear life on his court while Chip found himself with three match points in the third set. Making things difficult, he failed to win that game and was forced to close the tie on his own serve. Chris, Sam and Ytai sat courtside with Chip’s family. Mat was close by with Jonathas. Nick was sitting on the court Chip was playing on and Jeff was three courts down still fighting his own battle. I was one court down standing with my hands on my knees, praying for Chip to put it away. As he came up to the net and finished the match with a decisive volley, anyone wearing garnet stormed onto the court in celebration of Florida State’s victory. Jeff sprinted all the way from his court to join the crowd even though he was in the middle of a point. It didn’t matter though. The tie was already settled. That was also probably the fastest sprint Jeff had done all year!
Victory was ours, a team effort in every sense of the phrase. We hugged each other, called every number stored in our cell phones, and then drove to the airport in a rush to catch our flight.
Let’s not get too carried away though. As Nick Crowell says, `That’s step two. Step three comes when we face Illinois in Texas.’ Monday was back to the grind in preparation for next weekend. Although I think it has been a remarkable season, Nick and Dwayne believe it is far from over…