BY ADAM ROGAN
It’s been a streaky season thus far the Drake men’s tennis team. The Bulldogs have topped teams like the University of Minnesota (who are no longer ranked, after starting the season at 23rd), LSU (48th), the University of Denver (47th) and Cornell (55th). But these wins came after starting the season 2-3 after losses to North Carolina State (34th), Dartmouth (42nd) and Harvard (50th).
And that was all before spring break.
While most students went home or on vacation at some point over the past several weeks, the Bulldogs remained on campus for a trio of matches.
The Bulldogs swept Brown University on March 11, but fell two days later to the University of Wisconsin–Madison, a top-40 program.
Drake bounced back on the March 22, taking down the 26th‑ranked Oregon Ducks, coming back from a lost doubles point and a 3-2 deficit to win 4-3.
Even with the loss to Wisconsin, the Bulldogs had still won seven of their last eight matches and were ranked 44th in the nation with a record of 13‑6. But things took a turn for the worse for Drake last weekend at Rice University in Houston, Texas.
The Bulldogs lost three straight matches to no. 40 Rice, no. 7 Texas A&M and no. 74 William & Mary. Drake’s ranking fell to 46th as a result.
“I don’t know what happened,” head coach Davidson Kozlowski mused. “In my four years at Drake, that was some of our most uninspiring play. It was extremely disappointing. If we play that way – with the lack of intensity, lack of passion – it’s going to be hard for us to win another tennis match. If we’re able to rebound and find the hunger and the joy of playing then we can still be really successful.”
“We were coming off of a great win against Oregon that should have propelled us with confidence,” he continued. “But we went down to Texas and maybe just took a lot of things for granted and it had a snowball effect.”
At the top of the downslide, the Bulldogs seemed outmatched when they played the Rice Owls on Saturday, despite the two teams’ relatively even rankings. Rice swept the doubles point and made quick work of the Bulldogs in singles.
Freshman Ben Clark lost in straight sets on the no. 6 court, followed by sophomores Bayo Phillips and Calum MacGeoch on courts 3 and 4, respectively. And then the match was over, flying by just that quickly.
The following loss to Texas Tech that afternoon wasn’t particularly surprising, although Rice would upset Texas Tech 4-3 the following day to complete a perfect weekend for the Owls in front of their home crowd.
Texas Tech is one of the best teams in the country and only needed to travel from Lubbock, Texas, to Houston for the tournament, an eight hour drive. The Bulldogs had more than 14 hours of travel from Des Moines all the way to south Texas, a trip that senior Ben Lott described as “brutal.”
“It’s something we have to deal with as a team,” Lott admitted. “We can’t use that as an excuse for any match, win or lose.”
Drake sophomore Calum MacGeoch was the only player to win his match, and did so in two contrasting sets. He won the first set in a 6-0 sweep and escaped with a 7-5 win in set two. In doing so, MacGeoch also claimed his second MVC Player of the Week Award this month.
Even with the honor, MacGeoch was still focused on where he could improve and help his team, moreso than his own successes.
“Singles has been going really well for me, (but) I’ve lost the last three doubles matches. That’s an area I can improve,” MacGeoch said. “Even if I win, it doesn’t really make a difference. A loss is a loss. But even to get numbers on the board for the team is good because everybody needs some confidence.”
Against William & Mary the next day, the Bulldogs came closer to ending their skid, but again came up short.
“We had taken a knock on Saturday a little bit, knowing that we could’ve done better against (Texas) Tech and Rice,” MacGeoch said. “I just don’t think that the energy for the team was there.”
After Drake fell behind 2-0, freshman Tom Hands gave Drake its first point of the day with a 6-2, 6-4 win.
William & Mary got that point back soon after as junior Damon Niquet defeated Bulldog sophomore Ben Stride in straight sets.
In a three-set match, MacGeoch managed to take down Alec Miller 6-4, 2-6, 6-3 to draw the Bulldogs back to within one, but that would be the last point for Drake on the day.
Lott had managed to win the first set 5-7, but lost the next two 6-2, 7-5 to give William & Mary the 4-2 upset.
Had Lott been able to pull out the victory, the pressure would’ve turned to the no. 4 court where sophomore Bayo Phillips was tied with William & Mary’s Lars de Boer in a tightly fought third set.
“Matches like that is when we give credit to William & Mary, they played a good match,” Lott said. “We didn’t necessarily do a whole lot wrong compared to the Rice match. It’s just the way that some college matches go sometimes.”
The Bulldogs have more than a week until their next match, leaving plenty of time to rest, prepare and reevaluate. And that time could be crucial, as those losses have put the Bulldogs on the bubble for reaching the NCAA Tournament.
Kozlowski believes that his team will need to win the conference tournament to qualify for the big dance, the first time that he’s felt the team has been in that position in his tenure at Drake.
“It’s going to be interesting to see how this team responds, how this team handles a whole new type of pressure,” Kozlowski said.
Drake will be hosting Wichita State on April 9 to kick off the conference season, with just three more matches remaining thereafter before the conference tournament.
Drake and Wichita State have been the only teams to win the Missouri Valley Conference since 2010, with the Bulldogs winning the conference tournament each of the last two seasons. The Shockers haven’t beaten the Bulldogs since 2013, and Drake hasn’t lost at home to Wichita State since 2010. Drake will look to continue those streaks next Saturday.
“We know that they want to beat us and they’re going to be coming at us with all that they’ve got,” MacGeoch said. “We’ve been doing some good things this semester, so we just need to find that as a team. If everybody commits to (training) these next couple weeks … then I think we can get our confidence back up and take a win against Wichita.”