The Baylor men’s tennis team took care of business on its home courts and, in doing so, earned the right to step up to a much steeper challenge.
The Bears entered this NCAA Tournament as the No. 6 seed, allowing them to host the first three rounds at Hurd Tennis Center. With the home crowd cheering the team on, Baylor dismissed Utah, 4-0, and Michigan, 4-1, during the first weekend of competition. It was more of the same in the Super Regional as the Bears eliminated No. 11 seed UCLA, 4-1, on Friday.
Now Baylor moves on to the Elite Eight and will face No. 3 seed Florida at 6 p.m. Thursday at the USTA National Campus in Orlando, Fla.
But the Bears, with four-time national champion coach Brian Boland guiding them for the first time this season, aren’t satisfied by getting to this point.
“I think our goal is to have a chance on May 19,” Baylor senior Jimmy Bendeck said, referring to the scheduled date of the national championship match. “So we’ve still got a little bit left there. Obviously, we’re focused on Thursday night.”
Florida is the highest-ranked team Baylor has faced since the Bears defeated No. 2 Texas in the finals of the Big 12 Tournament on April 21.
Like Baylor, the Gators have been getting consistent play throughout the lineup. Florida’s top singles player Oliver Crawford hasn’t won a singles point so far in the NCAA Tournament. But it hasn’t mattered since the Gators have won the doubles point in every match and their Nos. 3,4 and 5 singles slots have been good for two points per match.
If all other factors are even, Baylor still has to overcome playing Florida in a familiar setting for the Gators. The USTA facility is just 130 miles from the Gators’ campus.
After playing at home for three rounds, it’s the Bears’ turn to go into enemy territory. According to Bendeck, the trick is having the right attitude.
“You have to adjust,” Bendeck said. “You have to be willing to maybe not hit the ball as well as you would at home and that goes with experience.”
Boland is also familiar with the courts that will host the final three rounds of the NCAA Tournament. He spent a year a working in player development at the USTA before being named as Baylor’s director of tennis last May.
Before that, Boland led Virginia to four national championships and 12 ACC titles in 16 seasons. So he knows when a team is ready to play top-level college tennis. Boland likes what he sees from his Baylor squad.
“I do believe that these guys are in the right place mentally and physically to complete with anyone in the country,” Boland said.
Baylor has won 16 of its last 18 matches, dating back to mid-February. That stretch includes plenty of victories at home, but also key wins on neutral courts in Indian Wells, Calif., at the BNP Paribas Open Collegiate Challenge and the Big 12 Tournament in Lawrence, Kan.
The Bears have adopted Boland’s focus on preparation, and that’s what they say gives them a chance to win it all in Orlando.
“Tennis is different every day,” Bendeck said. “You wake up and you don’t feel the same as you did the day before. But I definitely think we’re feeling confident and I know that we’re going to be as prepared as possible, probably the most prepared guys of any of the teams out there.”