No. 2 Texas begins hunt for first national title in unconventional season

Robert Trevino

Tuesday evening, as the sun was setting over Austin, Texas, the men’s tennis team was busy posing for team photos, with the Tower dressed in burnt orange as a backdrop. Junior Yuya Ito, who earned All-Big 12 honors for the third straight year earlier in the day, struggled to keep the bulky, glass Big 12 Championship trophy up as the photo shoot dragged on.

It was a familiar scene, as the men also took home the Big 12 Championship in 2018. But a lot has changed since then, with the firing of longtime head coach Michael Center after he was charged in the nationwide college admissions scandal for accepting $100,000 to get a student into the university under false pretenses.

You would’ve never sensed that in front of the Tower, as the entirety of the team’s focus was on Texas’ upcoming chase for a first-ever NCAA Championship.

“A lot of things have happened off the court, but I really think the way we responded showed how tough a team we are,” said Christian Sigsgaard, a junior Big 12 Co-Player of the Year who earned All-Big 12 team honors in singles and in doubles with partner Harrison Scott. “We came out after all this happened (and were) ranked No. 1 in the country. That’s definitely something to take away from it, that we have to stay together all the time.”

The chase for a championship begins this Friday at home, as the No. 2-overall seed Longhorns earned home court advantage against Tennessee Tech.

“The biggest key is that we approach each match we play — especially this first one — the same way we have every match,” interim head coach Bruce Berque said. “That is always one of the hallmarks of a championship caliber team …”

In his fifth year with the program, Berque was mostly quick to shower praise on the team.

“The thing that makes (the team) special is the maturity that (the team has), we have a senior-laden team,” Berque said. “Those guys have really matured throughout the year, my job has been made pretty easy by them … (The shift to interim coach) was pretty seamless, to be honest, and it has been made seamless because of the leadership the players have shown.”

One of those seniors mentioned was Scott, who downplayed perhaps the only concern for Texas (23–3) going into Regionals: the loss in the Big 12 Championship title match to Baylor.

“(Losing in the Big 12 Championship match) was definitely tough, you never want to lose to Baylor,” Scott said. “We had a great season, so we didn’t want to dwell on that for too long … by the next day, we were back at practice.”

Meanwhile, Ito has never looked better, leading the team in singles wins with 22, and feeling better about his game than in previous years.

“I’ve been working on being more aggressive,” Ito said. “Last year, I was really tentative sometimes and I couldn’t really play my game. I’ve been working on trying to play my game for the whole match and the whole season and I think it’s been working pretty well.”

Weather could play a factor this weekend if rain arrives, potentially moving the matches indoors, where the Longhorns haven’t played much this year. But in a year of immense success among plenty of outside distraction, weather doesn’t even come close to phasing this team, especially Sigsgaard.

“I think this team is good either outdoors or indoors,” Sigsgaard said. “If it’s windy we’ll be ready for that, I think we’ll be ready for anything.”