Same situation, fresh faces: No. 4 Texas men’s tennis begins national championship defense with new lineup and high hopes

Ross Fisher

After men’s tennis head coach Bruce Berque’s men fell short against Baylor in the final of the Big 12 Championship, he told his young team about his 2019 team, who were in the same position and ultimately won a national championship in Florida just a few weeks later.

Nearly two weeks after that heartbreaking loss, Texas will begin their conquest for college tennis’ greatest prize. The journey starts at the Texas Tennis Center in Austin with No. 4 Texas facing Northern Arizona on Saturday in its NCAA Regional, before playing either Northwestern or No. 23 UCLA on Sunday, should they advance past the first round.

Unlike the 2019 team full of upperclassmen, nobody on the current roster has played an NCAA tournament singles match. However, Berque believes this young team is ready to compete for a National Championship this year.

“We’ve proven we can beat any team in the country,” Berque said. “We have wins over three of the four teams that were ranked No. 1 this season, and we’ve got wins over the teams currently ranked No. 1 and 2 in the country.”

In a team composed of guys with little to no college experience, such as sophomore Eliot Spizzirri, Texas was overlooked as a national championship contender.

Spizzirri entered the season having just barely cracked the ITA Top 125. Now ranked No. 23, he enjoyed success as Texas’ No. 1 singles and doubles most of the season, but he still feels he was overlooked.

“I’ve operated with a chip on my shoulder, and so have the other guys,” Spizzirri said. “I think the reason for our success, and the way I have been playing, (is) having that chip on my shoulder and wanting to prove we can beat anyone.”

The only current Longhorn that featured in the 2019 championship lineup, junior Chih Chi Huang, told his teammates the reason for their success in 2019 was having five graduating seniors who knew it was their last chance to win it all.

While Spizzirri admits that source of pressure does not exist for him and most of the team, he took Huang’s advice to heart and is motivated to win for those that are leaving.

“I am trying to embrace that mindset that this is the last time I am going to be able to compete with this exact group of guys. We have Jacob (Bullard) leaving and Payton (Holden) graduating, so that is something special to each of us,” Spizzirri said. “I think there is no reason that we shouldn’t treat this like it is our last chase. If we do that, I think that will give us our best chance of success.”

Texas must first win its two regional matches at home. They will be heavy favorites to put away weaker opposition in Northern Arizona and either Northwestern or UCLA.

However, Berque remembers earlier in the season when his team barely scraped by Tulane and Arizona State, who were both unranked at the time, and knows that any team in Division I tennis can be competitive on any given day.

“I think we should be confident, but I hope we retain some of the lessons that we learned earlier in the year,” Berque said. “Just about everyone we’ll play is going to be good enough to beat us.”

If Texas advances from the regional, they will head to Orlando on May 17 to play in the Round of 16, and the quarterfinals, semifinals and final are all slated to take place May 20-22.