The USU men’s tennis team has generated a lot of noise this season. Now, they’re hoping to shout like never before.
In James Wilson’s first year as head coach after replacing Clancy Shields, who left USU to take the head coaching job at Arizona, the Aggies have not only maintained the course set by Shields, but broken a number of school records along the way.
Utah State’s record of 23-8 set a new school record for total wins and includes a record-tying nine match win streak. For combined singles and doubles wins, junior Kai Wehnelt set the school record with 48, while senior Jack Swindells has climbed right along with his teammate, notching 47 so far on the season. Wehnelt and Swindells are also both tied for the single season record for singles wins, each reaching 26 on the year. Freshman Sergiu Bucur is currently in the midst of a 12-match winning streak, reaching one shy of tying the school record set over 40 years ago in 1970.
Speaking of 1970, that was the last time USU had any taste of the NCAA Tournament. That year, the Aggies sent three individuals and one doubles team to the tournament. This year, however, marks the first occasion that Utah State has sent a full team to the big dance.
“The excitement of it being our first-ever NCAA tournament is an awesome feeling and a sense of accomplishment,” Wilson, said. “The guys realize we have a very good opportunity.”
The Aggies are here courtesy of a dominant weekend in the Mountain West tournament. USU emerged with the school’s first postseason conference title following a weekend where they outscored opponents 12-1.
Their reward? A face-to-face encounter with No. 21 Northwestern.
The Wildcats finished fifth in the Big Ten Conference, but don’t let the middle-of-the-pack finish fool you. The Big Ten features five teams currently in the Top 30 in the country, including the 21st-ranked Wildcats. USU understands the challenge at hand.
“It’s going to be a tough match against Northwestern,” Wilson said. “They’ve been ranked inside the top-20 all year, and they’re a very good program.”
The Aggies know firsthand just how good Northwestern can be. Earlier this season, both teams competed at the ITA Indoor Championship. While the two never faced off on the courts, USU did have the chance to scout out the Wildcats in person.
“Our team will not be intimidated,” Wilson said. “We will be prepared. Getting a chance to see Northwestern play there, I think we know what to expect a little bit. Throughout the course of the season, this team has been in some big matches and big stages. I’m excited for them, and confident they’ll be ready to play.”
The Aggies have not only played in big matches on big stages, they’ve also won several, most notably a 4-3 win over TCU, now ranked sixth in the nation. Relying on those experiences will be key for USU, as well as carrying over the momentum of winning 15 of their past 16 matches.
The appearance may be the Aggies’ first at the NCAA Tournament, but they are hardly shying away from the moment.
“We’re going to come out, play loose and aggressive and hopefully get off to a good start in doubles,” Wilson said. “Our guys have worked hard, we’ve prepared well and we’re really excited to play.”
Should the Aggies advance, they would face the winner of No. 8 California and Tennessee Tech on Saturday.
The noise would continue.