On the other hand, the season can hardly hold a candle to the magical breakout season of 2003-- a season which saw Vanderbilt vault from the dregs of the SEC all the way to national glory. It was a never-to-be-forgotten campaign filled with one astonishing moment after another-- running roughshod through the SEC, winning the conference tournament, hosting an NCAA regional, before advancing all the way to the national championship match.
And therein lies the paradox-- the Dores of '03 set the bar at skyscraper level. Compared to the dizzying success of last year's upstarts, the 2004 Commodores-- though not exactly chopped liver-- have unquestionably disappointed.
Senior star Chad Harris, ranked 23rd nationally in the latest ITA rankings, said Wednesday the team has had to resist the subtle temptation to compare itself to last year's team.
"Midway through the season we were getting kind of disappointed, because subconsciously I think we all put our expectations up to what we did last year," Harris said. "I think we put more pressure on ourselves than was really necessary, and we got down on ourselves.
"Coach Flach talked to us about some of the good things we had accomplished this year. We just needed to do some settling down and refocusing."
It's all a matter of perspective. Compared to the years before 2003-- years in which Vanderbilt languished in the SEC cellar-- the 2004 season could only be considered wildly successful.
Last year's team was 19-3, 9-2 at this point in the season-- this year, the record is a more modest 14-10, 6-5. In 2003, Vanderbilt took the startled conference by surprise; this season, the conference has been laying in wait.
Harris, who played No. 2 singles in 2003 and compiled a 19-4 record in dual matches, has found the going much tougher at No. 1 singles this year-- entering the tournament, he's a lackluster 10-12 in duals.
Yet casual observers may forget that the Commodores lost Bobby Reynolds, only the top-ranked player in the nation through most of last year, when he decided to turn professional after his stellar junior season. And for a while, Flach feared he might lose Harris, after he underwent back surgery in the offseason.
"I didn't bounce back from surgery as quick as I thought I would," the Aurora, Colo. native said. "I ended up having two surgeries, and the recovery took a lot longer than I expected. But I was able to win at the SEC Indoors in January, and it really hasn't affected me that much since then.
"We miss Bobby almost as much off the court as we do on it. He was such a great teammate as well as a great player. He's still one of my best friends. He came up to see us and be with us last week."
The Southeastern Conference has proven to be just as cutthroat as ever in 2004. Though the Commodores are No. 21 in the latest ITA national rankings, six SEC teams are ranked above them. With a 6-5 conference record, the Commodores drew the No. 7 seed in the Tournament, and will open vs. tenth-seeded South Carolina at 1:15 p.m. Thursday. Win that one, and it's mighty Florida on Friday.
What would it take for Vandy to defend its 2003 tournament championship? Winning four matches in four days against this kind of competition would obviously be a monumental feat-- yet with no one team running away during the regular season, and the tournament based in the familiar Brownlee O. Currey Tennis Center, a Vandy repeat is certainly not out of the question.
It's doubtful Vanderbilt will host an NCAA regional this season, so this will likely be fans' last chance to see the under-appreciated Harris perform on his home courts. Like his comrade Reynolds, Harris aspires to join the pro ranks after graduation, though he's not sure how soon.
"It's absolutely awesome to have the SEC Tournament here on our campus in my senior year," he said. "I really hope a lot of fans will come out and cheer us on."
SEC Men's Tennis Tournament Brownlee O. Currey Jr. Tennis Center Thursday, April 22 #5 LSU vs. #12 Alabama 8 a.m. #8 Auburn vs. #9 Arkansas 9:45 a.m. #6 Tennessee vs. #11 Mississippi State 11:30 a.m #7 Vanderbilt vs. #10 South Carolina 1:15 p.m. Friday, April 23 #4 Kentucky vs. Winner of LSU/Alabama 8 a.m. #1 Ole Miss vs. Winner of Auburn/Arkansas 9:45 a.m. #3 Georgia vs. Winner of Tennessee/Miss. State 11:30 a.m. #2 Florida vs. Winner of Vanderbilt/S. Carolina 1:15 p.m. Saturday, April 27 Winner Match 5 vs. Winner Match 6 10 am Winner Match 7 vs. Winner Match 8 2 pm Sunday, April 25 Winner Match 9 vs. Winner Match 10 1 pm All Times Central. The doubles of each match will start 45 minutes after singles of the previous match ends, but not before the designated time.
Four members of the team were named All-Southeastern Conference at an awards banquet Wednesday evening held by the league on the eve of the SEC Tournament. Senior Chad Harris was named first-team All-SEC, while senior Zach Dailey and juniors Scott Brown and Matt Lockin earned second-team All-SEC honors. Additionally, Dailey was named to the league's Good Works Team.