After the UCI men’s tennis team suffered an upset loss to Bingmaton earlier in the month, Head Coach Trevor Kronnemon knew the team needed to examine their endurance to remain in contention for the Big West Conference title.
With temperatures at Indian Wells, the location of the Big West Tournament, projected to be in the upper 100’s, the team dedicated the next four days to improving their stamina.
Kronnemon’s conditioning clearly paid dividends, as the team claimed a portion of the Big West Conference Championship with a 6-1 victory over No. 53 UC Davis at the Anteater Tennis Stadium last Sunday.
“I think that was probably the best match we’ve played all season. We definitely brought the energy today, and we’ve been on them about energy and how we go out and compete,” said Kronnemon. “(It was a tough 4 or 5 days), but I think that helped them physically. I think it helped them mentally.”
Playing on court one, the tandem of juniors Justin Agbayani and Jonathan Poon got the Anteaters off to a hot start with a convincing 6-3 win to take the early lead in the doubles round.
“I thought we just had to bring a lot of energy, that’s when we perform our best,” said Abgayani. “We definitely felt really excited to play cause it was the Big West Regular season.”
As a result of their win, Abgayani and Poon finish with an undefeated record of 5-0 in conference at No. 1 doubles. With the momentum on their side, juniors Tyler Pham and Jonathan Hammel rallied back from a slow start to clinch the doubles point 6-3.
“We just tried to get the other guys going, it’s just another match,” Poon said.
In the round of singles, Nico Mertens wasted no time in securing the opening set 6-1, but encountered slightly tougher play from his opponent in the second set before closing out the match 6-3.
“I think I was just a little bit aggressive and a little bit less sharp in the second set so it gave them a little bit more opportunities, but at the end I found it back and was (able to take control),” Mertens said.
Pham made quick work of his opponent on court two in straight sets, defeating James Wade 6-3, 6-1 to put the Anteaters up 3-0.
With the Anteaters on the brink of victory, it looked as if freshman Sebastian Heims was a lock to clinch the match after taking the first set 6-1 against Alec Adamson at No. 1 singles. Adamson, however, refused to go quietly, taking four games off Heim before succumbing 6-4 to give the Anteaters the match.
“(In) the second set, he started to change his tactic. (He) tried to come in a bit more, and tried to push the percentage on the first serve. He won the big points after that,” Heim said.
Following the game, Heim accredited part of his victory to the conditioning that Kronnemon put the team through, noting it also helped bring the team closer.
“It really (helped with our) team bonding, we really learned to fight through. It was unbelievable to run three miles every day. We (ran) one mile, (had a) two minute break, next mile, it was like unbelievable,” said Heim. “But we feel prepared now for the Big West Championships in Indian and it’s a good feeling.”
Perhaps no player benefited more from Kronnemon’s conditioning than senior Shuhei Shibahara, who stood tall on the court after a grueling three-set affair against Bryce McKelvie.
Shibahara fell to McKelvie 4-6 in the first set, but battled back to take the second set 7-5 and force a 10 point super tiebreaker.
“First set I kind of started off a little bit slow, (with) sloppy footwork. (In the) second set, I just tried to move around my backhand more and get more forehands,” Shibahara said.
In the tiebreaker, Shibahara found himself down three consecutive match points at 6-9, but manage to stave off the first two points with back-to-back forehand winners. On the third match point, however, Shibahara would go to his backhand to draw even with his opponent.
“At 8-9 I just kind of took a risk I guess,” said Shibahara. “I took a chance. He’s been serving a lot to my backhand, so as soon I saw that backhand I just kind of ripped it, and it went well.”
Unfortunately, despite holding match point at 13-12, Shibahara’s match came to an anticlimactic end. After falling to Hammel, UC Davis’s Everett Maltby drew a court violation for unsportsmanlike conduct that carried over to Shibahara’s court, and ultimately awarded him the match.
“I mean (it was) relieving, but disappointing I guess, (it) doesn’t really feel like a win to me,” Shibahara said.
With the win, the Anteaters secured the No. 1 in the Big West Tournament for the first since 2011, which was also the season they last won the tournament title. UC Irvine will kick off Big West Tournament play next Friday at 3:00 p.m in the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.
After a long season abound with upset wins and losses alike, the Anteaters appear to have found their form as they look to claim its fourth Big West Tournament Title.
“You always see that happen near the end of the season. Everybody fights a little bit harder, everybody wants to do a little bit more,” said Kronnemon. “So I think that’s a testament to their cohesiveness and staying together.”