Top-ranked Big West foe UC Santa Barbara (15-5, 3-0) traveled to Anteater Tennis Stadium on Saturday, and although UCI was handed a 5-2 loss, men’s tennis has cause for optimism.
The ‘Eaters won the doubles point off of the Gauchos, marking their third in a row after owning doubles against Cal Poly and UC Riverside. The final score came down to a pair of three-set matches in singles play, decisions that Head Coach Mike Saunders believes his team will eventually start to win.
“If I’m playing on this team, I’m walking out of here I’m putting notes down, I know my match came down to a few points,” said Saunders, “And I’m already getting it in my mind the couple of things I have to do to turn the tide my way.”
With no seniors and three walk-ons in the starting lineup, UCI is a young team and has suffered from inexperience and the faith in themselves to come through in big moments.
“Some of the matches that didn’t go our way were close,” said Saunders, “A little bit of that is belief, and playing a little bit smarter on the big points, and believing in ourselves on the big points.”
Number one singles player and team leader junior Sebastian Heim has also suffered from injury and illness throughout the year, but he was able to find his stride and perform to his ability on Saturday. He upended the former Freshman of the Year in the Big West, UCSB sophomore Nicolas Moreno de Alboran in singles play, and also teamed with sophomore Luis Lopez, reigning Big West Player of the Week, to take down their doubles match.
The ‘Eaters came from behind in doubles play, after the Gauchos took an early lead as the duo of junior Simon Freund and sophomore Anders Holm played near-mistake free tennis and took the flight one match 6-1 from ‘Eater junior Luca Marquard and sophomore Mason Hansen.
Lopez and Heim finished next, breaking a 4-4 tie by winning the final two games and defeating Moreno de Alboran and senior Morgan Mays 6-4 in the number two match. Lopez volleyed three tough shots in a row at net before Heim hammered the cross court winner on set point.
On court three, UCI sophomore Vatsal Bajpai and freshman Bruce Man-Son-Hing faced a 4-3 deficit at the hands of UCSB freshman Kristian Prior and junior Cody Rakela, but rallied back to take three games in a row to clinch the 6-4 win and the doubles point for the ‘Eaters.
Rakela got his revenge against Man-Son-Hing in singles play, prevailing in straight sets 6-2, 6-2, to even the tally and put the Gauchos on the board.
Mays defeated Marquard at flight two 6-2, 6-3, and Freund followed suit, knocking off Lopez at flight three 6-4, 6-3 to put the Gauchos a point away from clinching.
Hansen performed well at number four singles for UCI, taking the first set off Holm 6-3. Holm, however, found an extra gear in the next two sets, storming back to win 6-3 and 6-1, giving UCSB the win and their fourth point of the day as the rest of the singles matches finished up.
After taking the first set 6-1, Heim was locked in a tight battle with Moreno de Alboran in the second set of flight one. Heim would not be denied and triumphed 7-5 in the second set to give UCI its second point of the match, first in singles play.
The final singles match to finish at flight six was a back-and-forth affair between Bajpai and UCSB junior Chase Masciorini. Masciorini took the first set 6-3, and Bajpai drew level with a dominant 6-1 second set. The Gauchos were able to hold on, as Masciorini took the final set 6-3 to produce the 5-2 final in favor of the visitors.
UCI drops to 7-13 on the year and 1-2 in Big West play, but have managed to come within a few points of victories against the top teams in the conference as they continue to improve as individuals and as a unit.
“We’re getting better all the way down the line each and every match each and every week,” said Saunders, “We’re tougher mentally, were playing smarter tennis, were executing better, so every week we get better.”
The ‘Eaters host Hawai’i and UC Davis next weekend to round out conference play before heading to Indian Wells for the Big West Championships where they hope to make some noise.
“Every single one of our guys can walk out of here knowing that they have a chance in the desert,” said Saunders, “We’re gonna be the underdogs, there’s no pressure on us. It’d be fun to go out there and upset some teams that are gonna be a little tight.”