Photo: Connor McCourtney
“I couldn’t feel my legs.”
Up 6-5 in the second set, Drake sophomore James McKie had just given himself a 30-15 advantage. He was two points away from sealing the victory and clinching the Missouri Valley Conference’s automatic bid into the 2011 NCAA tournament. But just as McKie caught a glimpse of the finish line, his body gave out. Food poisoning from last Friday night left him in a weakened state Saturday, and the rigorous play of the championship match had taken its toll on the young Bulldog.
“I was cramping all over, in my legs and back,” he said. “I honestly thought I wouldn’t be able to continue.”
The Bulldogs held a 3-0 advantage over Wichita State as McKie lay writhing in pain on the court, but the Shockers had laid claim to three sets in the three remaining matches. If McKie retired from his match, the Shockers would have had a chance to steal the conference title from the No. 63 Bulldogs. But the Bulldogs did not garner a 14-match winning streak and a 20-2 record by giving up.
Five minutes of treatment and two points later, McKie was back laying on the court, but this time as a Missouri Valley Conference champion. His teammates bounded over the net and piled on in celebration as the scoreboard read 4-0. The Bulldogs were headed to their fifth NCAA tournament in school history.
Three hours prior to the celebration on Court 4 of the Dwight Davis Tennis Center in St. Louis, head coach Evan Austin’s Bulldog squad waited in the locker room battling their nerves in between moments of excitement. Drake was the top seed and the clear favorite in the match, and the added pressure brought even more nerves.
“Everyone was so pumped up,” McKie said. “We were nervous, but it wouldn’t have been normal if we weren’t.”
The Bulldogs took to the court minutes later to begin the championship with three doubles matches. Throughout the year, Austin had stressed the importance of winning the lone doubles point to give his team an early advantage, and the same message rang true on Sunday morning. But it was Wichita State who came out of the gates fastest in doubles.
“Wichita (State) came out extremely aggressive in doubles so we had to shake off our nerves pretty quickly, or we would have been in trouble,” Austin said.
The Bulldogs didn’t shake the nerves off fast enough at the third doubles spot, as junior Cesar Bracho and freshman Robin Goodman fell 4-8 to Wichita State’s Juan Estenssoro and Valentin Mihai. With Wichita State just one match away from claiming the doubles point, it was the top two Bulldog duos who raised their level of play.
At the second doubles position, sophomore Jean Erasmus paired with McKie in what became an epic back-and-forth battle. The pair of sophomores managed to take the match to a tiebreaker at 8-8, but from there, it was total domination by the Bulldogs. The duo rushed out to capture the first four points of the tiebreaker to set the tone, and four points later Drake had won the match 7-1.
The doubles point then rested on the racquets of senior Mauricio Ballivian and sophomore Anis Ghorbel. Like Erasmus and McKie, Ballivian and Ghorbel were pushed to a tiebreaker to decide the match, and just like their teammates, they dominated at the finish. Taking the tiebreaker 7-2, the Bulldogs gave themselves a 1-0 advantage heading into singles play.
“I think the confidence and toughness we’ve gained throughout the year was the difference there,” Austin said.
Ballivian and Ghorbel carried the momentum from doubles into singles play. Ballivian lived up to his title of Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year, while Ghorbel proved he is even better than his All-MVC accolade as the No. 4 singles suggests. Both players rushed out to win 6-3, 6-2, and the Bulldogs pushed their lead to 3-0.
“Mauricio has been solid from start to finish in both singles and doubles and has been a true team leader in his senior year,” Austin said. “Anis has played lights out since the match against Minnesota, and I just think he’s matured a lot as a player.”
At this time, Erasmus, Goodman and Hadash had all lost their first sets at third, fifth and sixth singles, respectively, but each Drake player looked to clinch the match on their courts. As McKie battled closer to victory on Court 2, Goodman had taken the second set 6-1 while Erasmus was leading 4-2. But each match was called to an end as the Bulldogs rushed to celebrate the 4-0 victory with McKie.
“James really flipped the switch and found where he needed to be from an emotional standpoint and was not going to be denied on Sunday,” Austin said.
The Bulldogs are looking to extend their 15-match winning streak next Friday as they take on the Illinois Fighting Illini in Champaign, Ill., in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The match will begin at 3 p.m. at the Khan Outdoor Tennis Complex.
Drake and the No. 17 Fighting Illini share similar results, despite the discrepancy in the national rankings, as both teams defeated the Illinois State Redbirds by a score of 6-1. Both teams also suffered losses to the Minnesota Golden Gophers, with Drake losing 2-5 and Illinois losing 3-4.
“We don’t care who we come up against,” McKie said. “We know we are capable of beating any of the top teams.”