The Tennessee men's tennis team was on hand at the East Skybox in Neyland Stadium Tuesday evening for the NCAA tournament selection show. Players and coaches sat amongst alumni and athletic program members, eager to learn of their first-round opponent and location, both of which turned out fortunately for the Big Orange.
The men's team drew the number-two overall seed, earning the Volunteers (26-1) a first-round match with the Winthrop Eagles (13-11). Additionally, the Volunteers will host the first two rounds of action at Barksdale Stadium in Knoxville beginning May 15 at noon.
"I couldn't be happier with our draw, I think it's a great opportunity for us," senior Davey Sandgren said. "The first opponent, we have to take care of business, but I see us going pretty far in the tournament."
In second-round action, the Volunteers could face the winner of the East Tennessee State-Alabama match, two teams the Volunteers have defeated earlier this season.
Head Coach Sam Winterbotham, now in his fourth year at Tennessee, is minding the opportunity to bring more attention to an already thriving program. This season alone, the Volunteers won their first SEC Tournament since 2002, while sweeping the conference regular season for the first time since 1990.
"Tennessee has great fans and they love a winner," Winterbotham said. "Bruce Pearl did a pretty darn good job this year, made program history and I'd say that's a great accomplishment. If we can get anywhere near what Bruce has managed to do I'll be happy. This is a major athletic department; you expect to be the best, so we just want our place in there."
To do so, Winterbotham will have to keep his team freshly tuned, as the Volunteers enjoy a 20 day layover from competition following the SEC Tournament.
"I think mainly it's just to keep them loose, they don't need to be thinking about playing in those first two rounds, or even that final site, until they get there," Winterbotham said. "We've taken it one step at a time all year."
"After SEC's and that stuff, we were really relieved for it to be over," Sandgren said. "We had all of last week off; I went out of town this weekend, so it was good to get away. We're starting practice again this week, we're going to start gearing up again, but we're all pretty refreshed."
For Sandgren and fellow senior Matt Brewer, each week now brings the possibility of playing their final collegiate match. Yet, faith in one's team can provide the only medicine needed to perform in the highest of pressure situations.
"Now, I'm enjoying each match as it comes, I'm not really how it's going to end," Sandgren said. "I just need to do everything I can for the team and hopefully we can keep winning. As the tournament comes closer, we all get more serious, tensions rise, but Sam tries to keep it cool on the court, we laugh and joke around a bit. Naturally it's going to get more tense as we go into it."
If Tennessee brings the same intensity that led them to sweep the SEC regular season as well as the conference tournament, expect non-conference foes to be on the nervous side of the net. Seven other SEC teams made the tournament, including Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Auburn and Mississippi.
Yet, this Tennessee team is not about to take anything away from the intensity of what they believe, is the toughest conference, and schedule, in the nation.
"I think it's one of the strongest conferences in the nation," junior John-Patrick Smith said. "If you look at the teams ranked, top 15 and top 25, the depth is just amazing. Each week you're playing a team that possibly could beat you."
"I would say we are the toughest conference, year in and year out," Winterbotham said. "When you get down to that final site, there's one team from every conference that can win it. It doesn't mean that we have the best team, we'll find that out. We know we're good, we're yet to find out how good."