It's been amazing and pleasing to Billy Chadwick how fan support and interest for Ole Miss tennis has picked up lately. There was always a handful of faithful followers as he moved the program from middle of the pack SEC program in the 1980s to national power today. Over the years that number grew slowly.
But this year the interest in the program is at its highest level. The Palmer-Salloum Center has become one of the SEC's most intimidating arenas for tennis. The crowds have been bigger overall than ever.
There are probably several reasons for that. First of all, everybody loves a winner, and Chadwick's tennis program has won like no other program on campus the past 10 years-plus. Since finishing second in the NCAA Championships to Stanford in 1995 in Athens, Ga., the Rebels have been in the national picture every season.
Certainly the Rebels are once again fighting for a national title after winning their second consecutive SEC championship this spring. And the publicity for a nationally-competitive program is always going to be more.
Websites like this one have helped make fans more aware of what is going on with tennis - and other sports for that matter. No longer do fans who are interested have to wait until the sports at 6 or 10 or the papers the following morning to get results. Gametracker, live stats, olemisssports.tv, etc., keep them up to date by the point.
More large crowds are expected this weekend for the NCAA Regional here. The first match of the day pits Auburn against Middle Tennessee State at 11 a.m. The Rebels play at 2 p.m. against Jacksonville State.
The second game of the Ole Miss-South Carolina baseball series has been moved from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. to allow fans the opportunity to attend both tennis and baseball on Saturday.
"Our guys have been working hard, their exams are almost behind them, the weather is warming up, the magnolias are starting to bloom, and we're hosting an NCAA Regional again," said a smiling and proud Chadwick. "Life is good."
But it has been a busy week, he added.
"Our guys take their exams very seriously, so this week we've been getting some tennis work in when we can. It's been a balance this week, but it's always like that this time of year. We're glad we don't have to travel and can take care of everything right here at home."
Chadwick says there's no doubt in his mind that the players will have their minds totally focused on the task at hand come this weekend.
"The guys know they have a rare opportunity," he said. "They have a legitimate shot at a national title. They're focused and determined. I'm excited about what I see from them. But we have to be at our best from now on if we want to win it. Win six matches and we can be national champions. It all starts Saturday."
Heat will be a factor now that the weather has made its move toward summer temperatures and humidity. The Rebels were able to practice in those conditions the past few days to get ready for what they will face in the afternoons this weekend.
"We have to work to play through the heat," said Chadwick. "It's good that it's starting to get hot. But it will be a challenge playing in it. We'll just have to find a way."
The Rebels from northern Europe will perhaps have a more difficult time of it since they don't experience hot weather quite like this. The top Rebel player, Catalin Gard, says conditions in his home country of Romania are about the same as Oxford, although there is more humidity here. And of course having played here for four springs now, Gard knows what to expect from the weather.
"I know it will be hot," he said. "It is this time of year here every year. The new players have been trying to get used to it this week. It will be a challenge to play through it as it always is."
Gard says he and the rest of the Rebels are looking forward to another opportunity to advance to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen by playing in front of the home crowd.
"We're very excited to play in Oxford," said Gard, who finished the regular season ranked No. 4 in the nation with a 20-3 record at No. 1 singles and became the third Rebel to record 100 career wins this season. "It's always great to have the support behind you. We're looking for a large crowd, and I want to thank the fans again for supporting us."
Jacksonville State arrives as the champions of the Ohio Valley Conference. It's the first time JSU has made the NCAA Tournament field in men's tennis.
"Ole Miss is the No. 3 seed, so they are very, very good," said JSU head coach Steve Bailey. "It will be a real challenge for our guys, because they (UM) are one of the picks to win the national championship. We have everything to gain and nothing to lose, so we are going to go out there, have fun and see what happens."
The Gamecocks came on strong down the stretch to win seven of their last nine matches to overcome a 3-4 start to the season. They have been led by their top four players, who are all seniors. Vedran Sirola, Arturo Nieto, Rodney Rapson and Kieran Ricci earned all four of the team's points in their 4-3 win over Samford in the OVC final.
"I can't think of a more fitting way for our seniors to finish their career than to be Jacksonville State's first NCAA Division I (tennis) Tournament team," Bailey said. "They came so close last year, and they came back determined and were not going to be denied this season."
On the women's side, the Lady Rebels face Cal-Berkeley in the first round of the 2005 NCAA Championships Friday at 9 a.m. CT at the Neil Schiff Tennis Center in Coral Gables, Fla.
Miami and Florida Atlantic will meet in the other regional match later in the day. The winners will face off Saturday at Noon for the right to advance to the Sweet Sixteen in Athens, Ga.
"We are very excited to be playing in the NCAA Championships," UM head coach Mark Beyers said. "The girls have been working hard all week to prepare for Cal, while also taking final exams."
Like Chadwick's team, Beyers and the Lady Rebs will have to battle the heat, their challenge being the south Florida type.
"Cal is a very good team, but like us they are young. It's been in the 60s in Berkeley, and it will be in the 80s and maybe 90s in Miami. We are prepared to play as long as it takes to win the match."
The Lady Rebels finished the regular season with a 13-9 overall record. They are in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2002.
Cal is 12-8 overall. They posted a 4-8 mark in the Pac-10. The Golden Bears, competing in their 24th consecutive championship, are one of only three programs, along with UCLA and Stanford, to participate in all 24 NCAA Women's Tennis Tournaments since the competition's inception in 1982.
Joe Walker's track teams are in Nashville this week for the SEC Outdoor Championships, hosted by Vanderbilt. Last year at this time, it was Ole Miss hosting the SEC track family at its new facility.
"It's hard to believe it's been a year since we hosted," Walker said. "We were so pleased to be able to finally host in our new facility. We've really enjoyed showing it off, not only last year at the SEC but also all year long since."
The Ole Miss men's team got its first outdoor ranking of the season recently, and Walker says that's all well and good for the program and for the school.
"As far as public perception and for recruiting, yes it's a big deal and we are pleased with it," said Walker of the No. 21 ranking, whose indoor men's team was also ranked back in the winter. "But in track you get what you deserve period. The winner is the fastest or the one who jumps the highest or the longest. But we're pleased to be placed among the elite groupings in the SEC. It can only serve to make us better."
Walker said the SEC meet is always one of the best in the country, if not the best.
"It's maybe even better and more competitive than the NCAA meet," he said. "The teams in this conference and the depth of this conference make it the best in the country. So when you get us all together, there is no better collection of great athletes and teams in college track than the SEC Championships."
Looking ahead in baseball, there is continued talk that the NCAA may move the season to a later starting date, mandating that no team may start its season prior to March 1. Of course, this is being done to help the colder climate teams, and the push is mainly coming from those regions.
In the last several years, programs from major schools like Colorado, Colorado State, Wisconsin, Iowa State, and Oregon have all dropped baseball and focused their money and attention to other sports. Gender equity may have had something to do with it. Weather certainly did.
Some warmer weather teams, like the ones in Arizona and Florida, start their regular seasons in January. Ole Miss has historically been a mid-February starter the past couple of decades.
One of the factors to be decided by the NCAA if this goes through is whether to shorten the regular season to less than 56 games or push the season down into July. The College World Series currently ends in June.
Since any legislation for a later start won't likely change things for next season, the Rebels' early baseball schedule is tentatively set. Ole Miss will play four three-game non-SEC weekend series, and it appears the Rebs will open next season with three games against Saint Louis University in Oxford.
Other three-game non-league baseball series prior to SEC play next year are against New Mexico and Illinois-Chicago, both to be played in Oxford, along with a trip to UCLA for three games against the Bruins.
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