East Tennessee State was served up a double-dip of competition in Knoxville for the first round of the NCAA tennis tournament next week.
The Bucs and Lady Bucs were each paired against Tennessee during the selection show that aired late Tuesday afternoon on ESPN News. The men will play the Vols on May 8 at 1 p.m., with the women to tangle with the Lady Vols the next day at noon.
Both ETSU teams, champions of the Atlantic Sun Conference, were seeded last among the four teams assigned to the regional site. (Duke and Radford are also there on the men’s side, South Carolina and Wake Forest on the women’s.)
“As the fourth seed, I’d rather go into explored territory,” ETSU men’s coach Yaser Zaatini said after watching the draw in the Culp Center. “But it’s going to be extremely difficult for us to beat them. Sam (Winterbotham, UT’s coach) has an incredible team. He keeps recruiting great players.”
Zaatini knows what he’s talking about. The Bucs have been playing the Vols annually in recent years, with no team wins to show for it. Tennessee leads the series 21-0, including a 6-1 victory on Jan. 24.
There is one significant difference this time.
“We’ve never played them outside,” said Enrique Olivares, the Bucs’ No. 1 player. “I wouldn’t say it’s going to be any easier, but it might give us a better chance. I know everybody is ready to compete.”
The Bucs (13-7) are making their third straight appearance in the NCAA tournament and scored their first victory a year ago, 4-2 over Notre Dame. They were eliminated in the second round by Ohio State.
Now they’re preparing for a Tennessee team ranked sixth nationally and coming off a runner-up finish in the Southeastern Conference tournament to Mississippi. The Vols are 21-6 overall.
Their best player is J.P. Smith, a sophomore who lost in the final match of the NCAA singles championships last season. He's currrently the No. 8 player in the country, according to the Intercollegiate Tennis Association.
The matchup between Smith and Olivares, a senior who carries a No. 17 national ranking himself, is intriguing.
Smith crushed Olivares 6-0, 6-2 in the teams' most recent meeting, but Olivares won back in the fall at the ITA All-American in Tulsa, Okla. In their only other match, Smith knocked Olivares out of the NCAAs in the round of 16 last spring.
“He’s a very good player,” said Olivares, “but I look forward to playing him again.”
Zaatini is realistic about his team’s chances.
“Enrique gives us some hope,” he said, “but we have to win four points. I know our guys just cherish the opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament. We’ll get out there and see what we can do.”
The ETSU women, meanwhile, are making only their secondever appearance. Their first came three years ago, and they were beaten 4-0 at Vanderbilt.
Tara Byrne was a freshman on that team who has developed into the winngest singles player ever at ETSU.
“This reminds me a little of my freshman year,” said Byrne, “but I think we’re more excited to be going to Tennessee instead of Vanderbilt. It’s a little closer and maybe we’ll have some people come down to watch.”
Both teams are 17-6, but the similarities start to end there.
Tennessee is making its 15th straight NCAA appearance and owns a 10-0 advantage in the series. Eight of the matches have ended in sweeps, including the last one, in 2002.
ETSU coach Steve Brooks has a pretty good feel for the program Tennessee coach Mike Patrick has built. He spent three years (1987-90) in Knoxville as Patrick’s assistant after both men had coached at Arkansas.
“He’s been there ever since and done a great job,” said Brooks. “This year they’re really good in doubles, but we match up good at 1, 2, 3, and 4 in singles. Our players there have a lot of experience and a lot of confidence. If we can get into those matches and make them interesting, who knows.
“I don’t think we’re going to be starstruck at all.”
Yevgeniya Stupak, a junior, plays No. 1 singles for ETSU and is ranked No. 121 in the latest ITA poll, which means she’ll receive an invitation for the NCAA singles and doubles tournament. Olivares will also be there on the men’s side.
The draw for that tournament will be announced today.