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Drake on the brink of Valley championship

Photo: Connor McCourtney

Most teams in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association’s national rankings would do anything to earn a 13-game winning streak, but for the Drake men’s tennis team, it’s a reality. The Bulldogs’ 19-2 record has been headlined by wins over the Memphis Tigers and Illinois State Redbirds, and the constant dominance has earned the squad a No. 68 ranking in the most recent national rankings. On Saturday, Drake defeated Wichita State to clinch the MVC regular season title.

Last season was the first time since the 2007 season that the Bulldogs didn’t spend much of the spring in the national rankings. That’s why first-year head coach Evan Austin made it a priority at the beginning of the year  for his squad to break into the top 75. The additions of sophomore Anis Ghorbel and freshman Robin Goodman to the lineup improved the team’s depth and gave Austin confidence that his squad could go toe-to-toe with nationally ranked opponents.

The Bulldogs spent their fall season building the confidence that would characterize their spring season. Senior Mauricio Ballivian won the A-Flight of the Louisville Invitational while sophomores Jean Erasmus and James McKie each posted wins over nationally ranked singles players. After those key victories, Austin was no longer the only person in the Roger Knapp Tennis Center who believed this year’s squad had a chance at a national ranking — the entire roster believed it. Each player believed that the spring of 2011 would be the Bulldogs’ return to grace.

“Before the season started, I was really looking forward to tennis and the upcoming matches because I knew I was prepared to do anything to win for not only myself, but for the team and coach,” Erasmus said.

His teammates share Erasmus’s sentiment; playing not only for the team, but also for the coach. Every post-match interview has mentioned Austin’s name as a cause for victory.

“Coach Austin is the best coach I’ve ever had,” Ghorbel said. “He is just complete and perfect as a team coach.”

It was a combination of Austin’s coaching and the attitude of his players that helped right the ship after Drake suffered midseason losses to two nationally ranked foes, Iowa and Minnesota. Prior to the late February matchup against the Hawkeyes, the Bulldogs had registered routine wins over their opponents and held a perfect 6-0 record. The Hawkeyes gave Drake a wake-up call in Iowa City.

“We weren’t ready mentally to play against Iowa,” Erasmus said of Drake’s 5-2  loss.

For the Bulldogs’ next match against the Minnesota Golden Gophers in Minneapolis, the team showed improvement.

Down by one, Drake had a chance to clinch the victory if Erasmus and McKie both posted wins, yet the home crowd boosted the Gophers to a 5-2 win. If the Iowa match was a wake-up call, the Minnesota match was a lesson.

“They showed us where we needed to be intensity-wise if we wanted to beat good teams,” Austin said.

Most athletes and coaches don’t believe in moral victories, but the loss to Minnesota seemed to spark a fire underneath the Bulldogs. A win over the Gophers, who moved up to No. 18 in the nation after the Drake match, would have easily put the Bulldogs into the national rankings. Austin’s squad realized that it could not settle for any more moral victories if the team was going to reach its goal of a national ranking.

“We weren’t just happy to play close with them,” Austin said. “We feel like we are able to beat those teams now.”

The Bulldogs’ play has improved drastically since that February night, especially on the doubles side. The top duo of Ghorbel and Ballivian has personified the team’s rise to the rankings, as the tandem’s 13-match doubles-streak equals the winning streak of the team.

Austin said picking doubles teams is often the hardest job of a Division I coach, and one just has to be patient as the players adjust to each other’s styles of play.

“Doubles at the beginning of the season is an experiment to feel out each other’s games,” Erasmus said. “I think by the end of this season we have managed to figure things out because of our patience and coach Austin’s tactics.”

Despite their improved play and confidence, the Bulldogs are not looking to rest on their laurels as they enter the State Farm MVC Championship this weekend. The other top teams in the conference, the Wichita State Shockers and the Illinois State Redbirds, are both incredibly deep and dangerous teams that will be looking to score an upset over the nationally ranked Bulldogs.

Austin said he believes that his team has the talent and confidence to win a conference title, but the squad needs to continue to practice hard and remain sharp and focused. As always, Austin’s confidence rings true throughout the locker room.

“We know we can win the conference tournament,” Goodman said. “But we have to take care of each match on its own before looking at the big picture of the NCAA tournament.”

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