Baylor men’s tennis embraces ‘underdog’ role for NCAA Tournament, Florida State match

Senior Finn Bass charges the net and makes contact with the ball during a non-conference match against No. 3 Texas Christian University on Feb. 8 in the Hawkins Indoor Tennis Center. Kenneth Prabhakar | Photo Editor

By Foster Nicholas | Sports Writer

Baylor men’s tennis is going dancing for the 25th-consecutive season. The Bears will match up with Florida State University in the first round of the 2023 NCAA Division I Men’s Tennis Championships either Friday or Saturday in the Columbia region.

Coming off a heartbreaking loss in the first round of the Big 12 Tournament, the green and gold is back at full strength in terms of injuries to key athletes like senior and captain Finn Bass or junior Tadeas Paroulek. It will also be entering the NCAA Tournament in a much different spot than the previous two years, as it isn’t the favorite to make it out of their region. But this season, the Bears (17-15) plan to attack the quadrant as the underdog.

“I think it’s very important that we come out and use our experience and really embrace the underdog role,” head coach Michael Woodson said. “We’re the spoilers of this draw and I think everybody knows that. We have to play into that and decrease the pressure and build up the confidence.”

Baylor will be facing Florida State University (19-8), a familiar foe, in the first round of the bracket. Both teams squared on Jan. 28 in Waco as part of the ITA Kickoff Weekend, and the Bears took down the Seminoles, 4-2, to advance to the ITA Indoor Championships.

“It’s not easy to beat a team twice or to play a team multiple times. There are really no secrets going in there,” Woodson said. “I think the interesting part about this matchup is there won’t be a single rematch. You’re playing the same team, but no one’s playing the same guy. All of our lineups [have] moved around and theirs has moved around.”

Additionally, Bass and Paroulek have both fully recovered from their respective injuries and will lead the team on the top two courts. Bass said the team knows that it’s a force to be reckoned with when everyone is healthy.

“We know how good we are. We know we can beat pretty much any team on any given day if all of us are firing,” Bass said. “We’re going in as an underdog, so we have less pressure. Hopefully, we can just go out and play freely and play well.”

While the final result in the Big 12 Tournament wasn’t there for the Bears, some members earned individual praise for their performance on the year. Doubles partners Paroulek and freshman Zsomber Velcz earned All-Big 12 first-team doubles honors. In addition, Paroulek also secured an All-Big 12 first-team singles nod, and he’s now the only Bear in program history to achieve both in the same season. Velcz also earned second-team singles honors.

Woodson said the benefit to those injuries “is that we’ve had to rely on the young guys a lot more than maybe we thought we would.”

“And that’s prepared them well,” Woodson said. “At this point in the year, ‘Z’ [Zsomber] and Luc [Koenig] are hardly freshmen. And the sophomores, Marko [Miladinović] and Ethan [Muza], have played so many matches this year that they feel like upperclassmen as well.”

With a first-round win, the green and gold would take on the winner between host No. 9 South Carolina University and South Carolina State University in the second round at 1 p.m. Saturday.

Woodson said there’s a strong sense of confidence among the group going into this draw.

“We know that we have a roster and results in the past that have shown that we can beat both of these teams and come out of that region,” Woodson said. “We know it’s not going to be easy, and going to play Florida State, who just missed out on hosting, is certainly not easy, but we know we can do it.”

The Bears have a combined record of 42-4 in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament historically and an overall record of 67-23. Last year’s squad came one match shy of reaching the Final Four, as the then-No. 3 Bears were upset by then-No. 6 University of Tennessee in the Elite Eight on May 19 in Urbana-Champaign, Ill.

Baylor’s opening contest against FSU is set for 10 a.m. Friday at the Carolina Tennis Center in Columbia, S.C.