When Baylor hired new tennis coach Brian Boland last May, the union became college tennis’ version of a rock ’n’ roll supergroup.
Baylor’s tennis program had already reached the top of its sport during former coach Matt Knoll’s 22 seasons at the helm. The Bears won 13 Big 12 championships, 8 conference tournament titles and the national championship in 2004. Every spring since the late 1990s, Baylor could be counted on to make some noise in the NCAA Tournament.
Most coaches would’ve been intimidated to take over a program with that much championship hardware in its trophy case. But not Boland.
As Virginia’s coach from 2002 to 2017, Boland guided the Cavaliers to a top-10 national ranking at the end of the season 14 times. His teams won 13 consecutive ACC championship and the national title in 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017.
It was quite a match. And in Boland’s first season it seems that the star coach and the perennial power program are a good fit.
Baylor (20-4) enters this weekend’s Big 12 Tournament with a No. 8 national ranking, the No. 2 seed in the conference meet and the sense that it’s all been leading to this.
“Now it’s every day,” Boland said. “We go play and, if we are eliminated, we go home. That’s the same in the Big 12 Tournament as well as the NCAA Tournament. So this is when we’re hoping to play our best tennis.”
The Bears earned a bye through the first round of the conference tournament and will open play at noon on Saturday at the Jayhawk Tennis Center in Lawrence, Kan. Baylor will face No. 6 seed Oklahoma State, which defeated second-seeded TCU, 4-2, in the first round on Friday.
Despite a setback at Texas Tech on Sunday, when the No. 23 Red Raiders edged the Bears, 4-3, in the regular season finale, Baylor begins the postseason with the sense it can compete with any team in the country.
In the past three months, the Bears have compiled a 12-4 record against ranked opponents. That included a nine-match winning streak in which Baylor defeated No. 11 Illinois, No. 16 USC and No. 9 TCU. Baylor also strengthened its resume during that stretch by winning the BNP Paribas Open College Challenge in Indian Wells, Calif. The Bears defeated Idaho, No. 31 California and USC to win that tournament.
But Boland said that was merely a warm up compared to what Baylor will face this weekend.
“USC and (Cal) are really highly competitive teams and certainly can play with anybody in the country,” Boland said. “But the Big 12 is so deep. Every team can go deep into the NCAA Tournament. That’s a testament to the quality of the Big 12 from top to bottom.”
Bears senior Johannes Schretter, from Graz, Austria, overcame an early-season injury and has posted a 5-5 record playing in the No. 1 singles slot this spring. He went 3-2 in Big 12 singles matches as, he said, he’s learning to adhere to Boland’s level of discipline on the court.
Rather than catering style of play to win a single set or point, the Bears coach preaches playing for the big picture.
“For us, we always want to win every single match,” Schretter said. “Coach has been talking a lot about the process. Sometimes, for me, I just want to win on the court. I kind of forget what the right way to play is — playing aggressive and hitting the right shots.”
Schretter is hoping the long-term thinking will pay off this week at the Big 12 Tournament. The Bears went 3-2 as a team in Big 12 play, losing at Texas and Texas Tech. The team followed Schretter, winning as a team when he won his singles match and losing when he dropped battles against the Longhorns and Red Raiders.
But even the Bears’ defeat in Austin told them something about where they might be able to go in the postseason.
“It actually felt like we screwed that up on the road,” Schretter said about the 4-3 loss to Texas. “On one hand, it’s annoying. On the other hand, it’s good to see that we can compete and beat any team in the country.”
Baylor’s ace in the hole in the conference and upcoming NCAA Tournament could be the man that’s been playing in the No. 4 singles spot lately. Senior Will Little has compiled a 22-5 overall record and went 5-0 in his Big 12 matches in the regular season.
“Will’s playing the best tennis of his life,” Boland said. “He’s been an incredible leader for us. He comes ready to work and get better every day.”
Boland said that’s representative of what the Bears have done as a group during the coach’s first season at the helm.
“Will Little, Matias Soso, Jimmy Bendeck, Sven Lah, Constantin Frantzen and the rest of the group is really playing at their peak,” Boland said. “I’m really excited how they’ve embraced the opportunity to improve.”