By Michael Haag | Sports Editor
An Elite Eight appearance is not uncommon for No. 3 Baylor men’s tennis, nor for its upcoming opponent, No. 6 University of Tennessee.
Nearly three months ago, No. 3 Baylor men’s tennis dropped a 4-2 neutral site battle to then-No.2 and current-No. 6 University of Tennessee. Now, just 86 days later, the high-powered teams will duke it out once more in the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament.
“We took good notes,” head coach Michael Woodson said. “We definitely have done our homework since then. We used that to really improve as a team, and it’s exciting to test ourselves again against that group to see if we can get the job done.”
The Bears (29-3, 4-1 Big 12) are riding high after utilizing their home court advantage in the first three rounds of the tournament. They were pushed to the brink in their last contest, a Sweet 16 duel with Stanford University where Baylor overcame a 3-1 deficit to emerge with a 4-3 win.
Being forced to climb out of an early hole allowed Woodson to find blessings in those high-pressure moments as they head into a tough test versus the Volunteers (25-7, 8-4 SEC).
“Getting pressed early and having our backs against the wall like we did against [Texas] A&M and then against Stanford, it’s going to really serve us well, especially since in those environments, we’re supposed to win,” Woodson said. “The pressure is on us, no matter how talented the team we’re playing is.”
The Big 12 Tournament champs are not only familiar with those high-intensity moments, but in the last five matches, five different players have clinched a victory, showcasing the balance of the group.
“Every single one of our guys has had that responsibility of carrying the fate of the team on their shoulders in big moments throughout the year,” Woodson said. “So it does make us feel good going into Thursday that it doesn’t matter whose name is called; if it comes down to 3-3, we’re going to be in a good spot.”
The squad has made its way to Urbana-Champaign, Ill., and has begun practicing ahead of Thursday’s match. The veteran group is laser-focused, and Woodson said he is seeing a unique type of intensity to his group in preparation for the Vols.
“Definitely focused,” Woodson said. “A lot of these guys know what it’s going to take and know that they need to be on it from start to finish. Their practices leading up and the way they treat their bodies is critical. There’s a little bit of a different edge about the team as we get into tourney time, but it’s a special thing to be a part of and see.”
The Bears now wait until 3 p.m. Thursday at Khan Outdoor Tennis Complex for the highly anticipated match. The contest can be livestreamed on the Tennis One app or website.
Woodson said the team isn’t taking a different approach because it feels it’s “as good or better than every other team.”
With a win over Tennessee, the Bears would be two wins away from a national championship — one the men’s program hasn’t seen since its lone 2004 title.
“It’s all part of the process,” Woodson said. “I feel like these guys know that they’re as good or better than every other team and that we have an opportunity. It’s just about going out and proving it on the match court, day in and day out.”