This morning (May 10), the youth-laden Toreros, who have only one senior on their roster, compete in a first-round NCAA Tournament match against the University of Alabama. The 11 a.m. match will take place at the University of Southern California’s Marks Tennis Center where USD is part of a four-team group with USC and Sacramento State.
“It’s key for our program to make it to the postseason, now three years in a row,” Masi said. “Doing it three times means it’s becoming a pattern. It’s expected. This is something that we do.”
Indeed, consistently reaching the NCAA postseason is a notable achievement. It helps with recruiting and provides an emotional lift entering the single-elimination format. For this year’s Toreros, though, who enter this match with a 17-9 overall record and as an at-large team that’s ranked 44th, means there’s plenty to play for, including a higher ranking come next fall.
The Toreros’ lone senior is France’s Thibaut Visy, who is Masi’s first recruit when he took over the program in 2009. There is also a solid junior, Clarke Spinosa, giving USD two experienced players at the top of the singles draw and a formidable No. 1 doubles team.
Having a tournament match today and, with a win, a second-round match-up against either No. 4 USC or Sacramento State, on Saturday at 3 p.m., means a lot. It will certain mean plenty for the Toreros’ three freshmen and three sophomores on the roster.
“We’re a very young team,” Masi said. “The younger guys have been a great, fun and energetic group. They’ve had some ups and downs but they’ve played steady enough to help us get where we are now. Hopefully they’ll draw on their experiences going into the tournament.”
The younger Toreros are sophomores Victor Pugliese, Ciaran Fitzgerald and Andrew Carlisle and freshmen Uros Petronijevic (pictured, left), Jakob Karnopp and Romain Kalaydjian. Among the group, Pugliese and Petronijevic have provided ample support to Visy and Spinosa’s expected contributions.
It will, however, take a complete team effort today against Alabama, ranked No. 29. The Crimson Tide’s record might seem unimpressive at 14-13, but one look at the rankings shows otherwise — the Southeastern Conference (SEC) has 10 teams currently ranked in the top 20 nationally and the majority of them are in the tournament and are regional hosts this weekend.
That statistic, while impressive, serves as good motivation for Masi to pass along to his team. A USD win today would go a long way — all the way to next season — to enhance his team’s ranking when the 2013-14 fall season arrives.
“We have a lot to prove and a lot to gain,” Masi said. “A first-round win means we’re one of the top 32 teams left and that helps us keep moving the program in the right direction.”
Today marks the Toreros’ 10th overall appearance in the NCAA Tournament. In USD’s two previous appearances under Masi, the Toreros have won their first-round match. Alabama and USD have both had some downtime — Alabama three weeks off, USD since April 26 when it lost to BYU 4-3 in the West Coast Conference Tournament semifinals — so the teams should be healthy and ready to play.
One player, USD’s Visy, certainly has some motivation. Every tournament match now could be his last one as a collegiate player. Masi expects his No. 1 player to do everything he can in his singles and doubles match and to provide the necessary example for the other players to follow.
“He’s the first guy I recruited to USD while we were building the program,” Masi said. “He’s been here to see it all. I know he’s excited about playing. He wants to give it his all.”
Spinosa and Petronijevic will be equally important assets. Both players enter the NCAA Tournament with eight-match win streaks in singles. Pugliese also has a winning record in singles competition this season.
Overall, though, USD’s chances of defeating Alabama and advancing into a potential match against USC or Big Sky Champion Sacramento State will require its youth to step up.
“We’ve stressed all year to them the need to show maturity, be focused and to play with intensity,” Masi said. “Our young guys need to keep the momentum going.”
— Ryan T. Blystone
Photos courtesy of scottphoto.net