Teams don’t reach their preseason goals every year. Injuries and other variables often shake things up in unimaginable ways, prompting the phrase, “That’s why they play the games.”
But the Elon University men’s tennis team achieved its goal of winning the Southern Conference Tournament and making the NCAA Tournament in perhaps the easiest way possible. The Phoenix cruised through the SoCon regular season with a 9-0 record and dropped just a single point en route to a SoCon tournament title.
“Up until now, we’ve had a really good year, but we want to win a round in the NCAAs to make it an exceptional year,” said junior Stefan Fortmann. “That pressure to win to get to the NCAA tournament has left us.”
By winning the tournament crown, the Phoenix earned an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament. After waiting until nearly the end of the selection show, players and coaches discovered they would be a No. 3 seed and face No. 2 University of Tennessee in the first round.
“We were getting a little bit nervous,” said Elon head coach Michael Leonard. “You start seeing all of those names and your heart’s beating trying to figure out where you are [in the bracket].”
Tennessee is a perennial power in the Southeastern Conference and finished its regular season with a 17-10 record. Elon assistant coach John Collins, who played for Tennessee just last year, knows the challenges the team will face.
“They’re a good team, a lot of hard fighters and a very, very competitive team,” Collins said. “They’re not going to go away. They’re going to be there from point one to the last point played.”
Collins said there are major differences between Tennessee, a large school in a major conference, and Elon. He was quick to point out how many more resources are available at a school like Tennessee, including indoor facilities, more coaches and the seemingly unlimited amount of gear. Collins also said the level of competition seen week in and week out plays into Tennessee’s advantage.
“[The SEC] is without a doubt the toughest conference there is,” Collins said.
Collins’ experience with the Volunteers allows him to give a very detailed scouting report for the Elon players.
“He knows those guys like the back of his hand,” Leonard said.
But Collins said he wants to be careful about = just how much information he shares on his former teammates.
“The thing with me is I can’t tell them too much,” Collins said. “So I’ve been trying to keep [things] on hold and just tell them what’s important and what they need to know like any other dual match.”
There’s no need for motivation when it comes to the NCAA tournament, but Collins is eager at the chance to take on his former school. He added that there has already been some friendly trash-talking back and forth. His phone was buzzing immediately after the matchup was revealed. Banter aside, Collins is looking forward to going up against a group of coaches that has made a lasting impact on his life.
“I’m going to be coaching against a coaching staff that has helped me grow up so much, not just as a tennis player, but as a person,” he said. “It’s going to be an honor coaching against them.”
Earning a No. 3 seed was a boost for the Phoenix. It meant they would avoid one of the 16 seeded teams in the first round, which in Elon’s pod is the No. 11 overall seed Duke University Blue Devils.
“Being a three seed definitely helps because you don’t go up against the big boys,” Fortmann said. “But you [still] have one match, and if you get through that, you have that match behind you, which’ll help you step up against the host team. That definitely plays in our favor.”
Having already defeated Duke earlier this year, Elon is not short on confidence, knowing it may have to face them for a second time.
“I think we were kind of hoping in a way that we [would end up] the three seed in Duke’s region, and that’s exactly what happened,” Fortmann said. “Both of those matches are going to be tough. If we get through the first, the second one is going to be just as tough. I guess we’ll just prepare for Tennessee and see if we can get in there with Duke [again].”
With the matchup against Tennessee not until May 10, the Phoenix has been able to relax a bit while keeping an eye on the NCAA Tournament.
“There’s a little bit of looseness because we’ve won the conference,” Leonard said. “You can kind of relax a little bit, but we still want to keep that relentless competitive nature that’s going to get us to where we can compete with a team like Tennessee.”
Even with that looseness, the Phoenix is anxious to get back on the court after what will be a three-week layoff.
“Is it the best situation? No. But you just have to deal with it. We just have to keep practicing, and every day we should be getting better,” Leonard said.
Much of the anxiousness stems from the fact that the team knows what it has accomplished and the possibilities that lay ahead, possibilities that can make program history.
“We have a tremendous opportunity ahead of us. It’ll be one of the toughest weekends this program has ever had,” Collins said.