BY ADAM ROGAN
It was a good weekend for the Drake Men’s Tennis team. In their first two matches back inside the Roger Knapp Tennis Center, the 44th-ranked Bulldogs upset two highly ranked opponents: no. 39 Purdue Boilermakers and no. 40 Denver Pioneers.
Taking on Purdue Friday afternoon, Drake won its first doubles point since Jan. 31, snapping a six-match losing streak.
Senior Ben Lott and sophomore Ben Wood won their match 6-3, but sophomore Calum MacGeoch and freshman Vinny Gillespie fell soon after, leaving the deciding match to the no. 3 pairing of sophomores Bayo Phillips and Ben Stride.
With their match tied at five games each, Phillips and Stride won two consecutive games to win 7-5 and seal the point for the Bulldogs.
MacGeoch won his fourth straight match in straight sets to put Drake ahead 2-0, but Purdue’s Gergely Madarasz – ranked 58th in the nation – looked to put the Boilermakers on the board.
Madarasz faced Lott on the no. 1 court, where Lott took the first set 6-3. However, Lott had been battling illness throughout the day and his play suffered as a result. He lost the next two sets 6-0, 6-3 and the Boilermakers had pulled back to within one.
Stride and freshman Tom Hands responded on the five and six courts to secure the Drake victory, each of them delivering three set victories of their own.
Hands had been down 3-2 in the second set after losing the first, but then won 10 consecutive games to pick up the victory.
On courts two and three, Phillips and Gillespie also played three set matches. Phillips lost the first set in a tiebreaker but won the second 6-1. However, he wasn’t able to finish the comeback as he lost the final set 6-4.
Gillespie’s match was close from beginning to end, but managed to hold out for the win: 7-5, 4-6, 6-3.
Final score: Drake 5, Purdue 2.
The Bulldogs continued their success the next day against Denver, seeking revenge after losing to the Pioneers 4-3 last season in Colorado.
“We knew this Denver team is a potential top-25 team,” Kozlowski said. “They are very, very good, especially at the top with their one and two singles players and their two doubles teams.”
In an attempt to keep the team engaged in the match at hand, Kozlowski used a somewhat old-fashioned tactic to get their minds off of Saturday’s win and focus on Sunday’s match.
“This morning, prior to the match, (I) had the guys write down prior to the match 100 times each, ‘I will win today,’” Kozlowski said. “I needed them to believe it.”
That belief seemed to pay off early. Lott and Wood improved to 2-1 as a pairing in the first doubles match with a 6-4 win, upsetting Denver’s 20th ranked pairing of Henry Craig and Alex Gasson. On court three, MacGeoch and Stride won 6-3 to secure the doubles point for the Bulldogs.
In singles, the Bulldogs took a 3-0 lead quickly behind MacGeoch and Hands who cruised to straight set victories.
“I put in a lot of work last week, hitting a lot balls there, and I guess it’s paid off,” Hands said. “(I’m) a lot more solid (with my forehands), hitting a few more winners, so I’m really happy with that and I’m really happy with these two wins.”
It looked as though the Bulldogs might have a quick victory, but the Pioneers didn’t see it that way.
“It’s a team game and it doesn’t matter what the score is on your individual match,” Kozlowski said. “It’s good to get some points on the board and get some guys off the court, but you need points no matter how you get them … When you get some of those quick wins it almost puts a false sense of security into your team.”
Stride lost his match 6-3, 6-3 to give Denver its first point of the day. Gillespie fell soon after, losing both of his sets by just two games: 6-4, 7-5.
With Drake up 3-2, the Bulldogs still only needed to win one more match. Their top two players—Lott and Phillips—were still competing. But Denver had its best two players facing them.
Lott had won the first set and had a chance to finish off Craig in the second set. Down 40-love with the set tied at four games each, Lott battled back with five straight point wins to take a 5-4 lead. From there on out in the set, however, Craig took control, winning three straight games to extend the match to three sets.
Meanwhile, on the other end of the Roger Knapp Tennis Center, Phillips was fighting to stay alive in the second set.
He’d lost the first set 6-2, but was taking the advantage in the second. With the set tied 3-3, Phillips won three straight games to push the match into a third set.
The third set reached a score of 3-3 as well, but this time Phillips lost the next three games and lost the match.
With the team score tied at three, all eyes turned back to the no. 1 court. The observing Bulldog and Pioneer players grew increasingly rowdy, cheering on their respective teammates and trying to distract the opponent.
“We deal with that each match and we practice that. The guys enjoy it,” Kozlowski said. “Both sides, whether you’re home or away and people are screaming and making noise, you somehow block it out or you’re hearing it and it’s fueling you, but you’re not really paying attention to it.”
Still, it wasn’t those in the stands who would start to bother Lott and Craig. A plethora of close calls were challenged by both sides, leading to Lott and Craig each getting angered and flustered with the referee at the end of the second set and the beginning of the third.
It would be Lott who settled down and found a way to win in the final set.
“Davidson really got onto me at the start of the third set, just telling me ‘Just believe, you can win this,’” Lott said. “He really helped me just to settle my mind and give myself the belief that I could pull it out.”
Lott took an early two-game lead in the third set, but Craig battled back to tie the set at three. Another argued call from Denver went in Lott’s favor in the seventh game, further angering Craig and giving Lott a mental advantage.
“(Lott) having calm nerves definitely showed,” Kozlowski noted.
Lott breezed through the next three games with wins, capped off with four service winners (two of which were aces) in the final game to win the match 6-4, 5-7, 6-3. Seconds after the final point was scored, Lott was mobbed by his teammates on the court.
Final score: Drake 4, Denver 3.
“It’s the best feeling I’ve had this season so far,” Lott said. “(We’ve) had some tough losses … but to grind that one out and to finally take a tight 4-3 win was very, very satisfying.”
Drake, now ranked 36th, has three home matches this weekend against the University of Iowa, Michigan State and Cornell.