Triton's Heat Up Phoenix

Erik Jepsen/Guardian

MEN’S TENNIS — The No. 35 UCSD men’s team arrived in Phoenix, Ariz., on Feb. 12 for the three-day Paseo Tournament — hosted by Grand Canyon University— in search of a winning formula. Consecutive season-opening losses to the University of San Diego on Jan. 30 and Concordia University two days later had the team in search of answers.

Three days in Arizona and five matches later, they seemed to have found some.

“We had a rough start,” junior captain Vince Nguyen said. “We went back to train, worked a lot on doubles and felt pretty confident coming in.”

On the Paseo Racquet Center courts, the Triton men translated confidence into results, upsetting higher-ranked Midwestern State en route to posting a 4-1 record — all over a rigorous weekend that squeezed five matches into three days.

“It’s good to get a lot of matches,” head coach Eric Steidlmayer said. “That’s something this group needs. We need the experience of playing this much.”

At 9:30 a.m. on Feb. 12, the Triton players opened up the tournament in style, pummeling hosts Grand Canyon 8-1. Seven of the team’s wins were in straight sets. Nguyen said a positive attitude and team camaraderie were instrumental to their success.

“We all felt great out there,” Nguyen said. “We competed hard from the beginning. Everyone was cheering each other on — yelling at each other every single point. It was very positive out there.”

Later that day, at 3:30 p.m., the players’ momentum was halted when they were narrowly defeated 4-5 by regional rival: the No. 27 Brigham Young University, Hawaii.

However, the Tritons proved a stern test for the Seasiders, and held their own against the favored opposition. The teams split the singles matches, each side winning three.

Headlining the singles results for UCSD was No. 1 player Erik Elliot’s thrilling three-set victory over Brigham Young’s No. 1 ­— and No. 10 in the country — Rong Ma.

In the end, the Seasiders managed to take two of the three doubles contests to earn the victory.

However, the competitive nature of the match was a major improvement from the previous meeting between the two teams, and Nguyen said the loss still boosted the team’s confidence.

“Last year, we lost to them 7-2,” Nguyen said. “This year, we played them 4-5. They are ranked No. 2 in our region, and we were right there with them. That gave us confidence for the rest of the tournament.”

Despite the hiccup against Brigham Young, the Tritons maintained an energetic spirit over the next two days, scoring decisive victories that included a 7-2 demolition of Western New Mexico University on Feb. 13 and an 8-1 drubbing of Montana State University, Billings the following day.

Against Western New Mexico, Elliot continued his impressive run at No. 1 in singles, following up his success against Brigham Young’s Ma with a straight set 6-4, 6-4 win over No. 24 junior Yair Banuelos. Also contributing singles victories was Nguyen, who improved his season record 4-0 with a 6-2, 6-0 win over Western New Mexico’s No. 4 Francisco Damasio.

On Feb. 14, after dispatching Montana State by sweeping the doubles contests and taking five of six singles matchups, the Tritons faced their sternest test of the weekend: a showdown with No. 25 Midwestern State University.

After a grueling string of four matches in three days, the Tritons displayed exemplary fitness and depth of skill, upsetting the Mustangs on the back end of a doubleheader.

The Tritons won two of three doubles matches against their favored opponents, receiving victories at No. 1 doubles from No. 17 junior Armaum Emami and red-shirt freshman Austin West, and at the No. 2 spot from Elliot and sophomore Jake Fellow.

In singles, No. 1 Elliot finished the tournament undefeated with his straight set victory, and wins at spots two through six from Nguyen — along with sophomores Sam Ling and Naveen Dixit — propelled the Tritons to a comfortable 6-3 win.

“It was important to come out strong from this tournament” Nguyen said. “It was huge to beat the No. 25-ranked team, after losing to No. 27. It gave us a huge amount of confidence to beat them, and was a nice highlight for the season.”

Steidlmayer says that beating ranked opposition is something the Tritons will need to get used to if they are to achieve success in the postseason.

“We need to continue to have confidence that we can be a Top-20 team,” he said. “I think this is a Top-20 team at least, and with a little bit more, we can definitely be Top 10. It’s important that our guys believe that.”

The team looks to continue its success story on the road against Azusa Pacific University on Friday, Feb. 19 — a match that was supposed to have been played on Feb. 6, but was rained out.

“We are going to practice, get some rest and look to take some momentum going forward,” Nguyen said.

Readers can contact Vishal Natarajan at [email protected].

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