By Cody Soto
The faces change, but the headlines stay the same. The No. 5-ranked Baylor men’s tennis team has a lot of hardware in the trophy case entering this season with 20 Big 12 titles in the last 18 years, including 17-straight NCAA tournament appearances.
Baylor has experienced major success under head coach Matt Knoll, and with the team chemistry this year, the team doesn’t expect anything to change.
“The guys are pressing,” Knoll said. “They have unbelievable commit, more than I think we’ve ever had.”
For senior Mate Zsiga, this year’s teammates have built the best chemistry with each other, stemming from people of different backgrounds bonding over the game of tennis. With a primarily older team, the newest players have quickly taken to the leadership of Zsiga and the other upperclassmen.
“We’ve got a great group of new guys here who are really talented, and they really listen to the older guys. It makes it a lot easier,” Zsiga said.
Teamwork and good sportsmanship have allowed each player to understand his role while participating in different matches. Zsiga has jumped in and out of the lineup so far this season, but it’s not bothering him.
“Throughout these last three years, I’ve learned that playing for the spots is not the way to go. You just have to go out there and play where Coach puts you,” Zsiga said. “Whatever my job is, whether I’m playing at spot one or filling up water bottles for the guys, I’m excited to do that and help the team. I just want to enjoy it, and I’ve found out how to do that.”
While the team is busy bonding through demanding workouts and 6 a.m. morning runs, Knoll doesn’t want that to affect any part of the team’s game. As a coach, it’s an interesting dynamic to deal with, he said.
“This is the closest team I remember us ever having,” Knoll said. “I don’t know if that creates a softness and doesn’t make us any good, or if it’s the type of unity and spirit that makes us really good. I hope it makes us resilient and tough and causes us to play for each other.”
The depth of the team is noticeable in the constant changes of the singles and doubles lineups. Knoll has shuffled around each player with confidence, so each man knows he is capable of getting the job done against their opponents.
“It’s a great position to be in, and the guys can manage the fact that we have a lot of good players,” Knoll said. “We are going to have the right six guys in the lineup at the end of the season. We don’t know who those are going to be right now, but everybody is going to get a chance.”
Tennis is strenuous on both the body and the mind, but BU has kept their teammates invested in the program.
Just recently, Baylor played three matches in three days to advance to the semifinals of the ITA National Indoor Championships. Even after a disappointing 4-2 loss to No. 1 Oklahoma who went on to claim the title, the team looks at it positively.
“If you’re not going to win it, then it’s good to walk away from the table a little hungry, and that’s how we are right now,” Knoll said. “We learned that you have to be able to bring in the energy day in and day out. On the final day, we weren’t able to sustain our focus and energy level like we needed to against Oklahoma, but sometimes you’ve got to go through that process sometimes and learn it and we’re going to be better.”
En route to the national semifinal finish, the Bears knocked off No. 6-seed Duke and then No. 3-seed Virginia. Both are quality wins under the team’s belt and have given the team a lot of confidence, senior Diego Galeano said.
“Sometimes we need to get those wins to realize how good we are and how good we can be in the future,” Galeano said. “In whatever we do from here to May, it will affect our results along our way. We can beat the best teams in the nation.”
The Bears will have the opportunity this year not only to raise the Big 12 tournament championship trophy in their own home court, but the national championship trophy as well. Baylor will host the 2015 Big 12 and NCAA Championships this spring at the Hurd Tennis Center.
The game site can serve as extra motivation for the Bears, who are looking for their second national title under Knoll. For Zsiga, Galeano and two other seniors, this is a big deal.
“It’s a dream come true. I remember people were talking my freshman and sophomore year about the possibility, and right now we have it,” Galeano said. “It could be a great way to finish our careers at Baylor in the best way possible.”
No. 5 Baylor is back at the Hurd Tennis Center for the first time since Jan. 29 and host four straight home matches in Waco. The Bears face No. 55 Purdue today at 3 p.m. and return to action against No. 12 UCLA Sunday at noon.