Apr 14, 2012 7:31 PM
Undefeated. That is what the seventh-ranked University of Kentucky men's tennis team is in Southeastern Conference play this season, clinching its first SEC Championship since 1992. Kentucky completed its historic run to the SEC title with a dominating 6-1 win over No. 43 Vanderbilt on Saturday at the Hilary J. Boone Tennis Complex in Lexington, Ky.
The Wildcats earned the championship after posting an unblemished 11-0 record in SEC matches, becoming the seventh team since 2000 to go undefeated throughout the SEC regular season. This is the first time in school history that UK has gone undefeated in league play. UK's previous best start was 8-0 in 1988.
"This is the toughest conference in the nation and to win it we had to go on the road and beat the No. 4 team in country and then we had to beat six other teams ranked in the top 25," UK head coach Dennis Emery said. "To run the table and go 11-0 is quite an accomplishment. I didn't feel at the beginning of the season that we would do this, but this team has really come together and reached its maximum potential. I am a very happy coach."
This is Kentucky's second overall SEC title in school history. The 1992 team was also named the overall SEC Champion. In 1992, the title was determined by a point system combining both regular season and tournament results. UK finished tied for first in the SEC regular season in 1992, but was not officially named the SEC regular season champion. The league started recognizing SEC regular season champions by league records in 2000.
"Wow," UK senior Alex Musialek said. "I have been here for four years now and my freshman year we were ranked 40-50 in the country. I told the coaching staff after that year I wasn't leaving this place without a title. This team deserves this and we have worked so hard. I am so happy and proud of what we have done, but we have more to accomplish."
"I really can't explain this feeling," UK senior Eric Quigley said. "How many people can say on their Senior Day they had a chance to win the SEC title outright? And to do it right next to my best friend with us both playing in the stadium and winning. All the great things that have happened the last four years came down to today and it was really special."
The win gives Kentucky the overall No. 1 seed in the SEC Tournament next week, which will begin Thursday in Starkville, Miss. For the third consecutive season, Kentucky will have a first-round bye in the event and not start until Friday. The complete bracket pairings for the event are expected to be released Saturday night once all SEC regular-season matches are complete.
"We need to keep going," Emery said. "It is great to celebrate and fantastic what we have done so far, but our goal was to win the conference and go to Final Four of NCAAs. We have a lot in front of us."
The victory over Vanderbilt completes a nine-match winning streak to end the season for Kentucky. During those nine matches, the Wildcats have defeated some of the best teams in the nation, posting wins over six teams that are currently ranked in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association top 25. All told, UK has a 20-4 record against teams currently ranked in the ITA team rankings, including a 9-3 mark against teams currently ranked in the top 25. Since the start of the 2009 season, UK has won 30 matches against top-25 teams, while posting a 60-10 record at home during that span.
"It is a really special time for us with Eric and Alex being able to do this their senior season," Emery said. "They are both so committed to our program and winning. When they came here, they were coming off probably the worst year we had had in 20 years. But where we are right now is because of Eric and Alex, they have meant so much to our program."
The Wildcats controlled the entire match with Vanderbilt, winning the doubles point and five of the six singles matches. No. 3 Quigley and No. 15 Musialek paced Kentucky with wins over ranked foes in singles, while junior No. 22 Anthony Rossi, and sophomores No. 104 Alejandro Gomez and Grant Roberts also posted singles wins.
UK swept all three doubles matches to start the match, moving to 17-0 this season when they win the doubles point. No. 55 Musialek and Rossi started the winning in doubles, taking down Blake Bazarnik and Jeff Offerdahl 8-1 at two doubles. UK's top duo of Quigley and sophomore Panav Jha, who are ranked 11th in the nation, then clinched the doubles point for Kentucky with an 8-3 victory over the 17th-ranked duo of Gonzales Austin and Alex DiValerio. Gomez and fellow sophomore Tom Jomby completed the doubles sweep at three doubles, taking down Charlie Jones and Joe Dorn in a tiebreaker 8-7 (6).
"I knew there was a lot of pressure today and winning doubles helped calm us down some," Emery said. "It's Senior Day, you kind of don't know how people are going to handle those distractions on Senior Day, but these last three years we've just played fantastic at the end of the year. We've just gotten better and better throughout the year each of the three years. We really have earned this and deserve it, our players do."
The Wildcats performed very well in singles, winning first sets on all six courts en route to winning five of the six singles matches. Rossi was the first to finish for Kentucky, taking down Bazarnik in straight sets 6-2, 6-3. Gomez then gave Kentucky a 3-0 lead with his 6-1, 6-4 win over Offerdahl, setting the stage for Quigley to clinch the decisive fourth point of the match.
The native of Pewee Valley, Ky., grabbed an early break in the first set over No. 34 Jones to roll to a 6-2 win and then continued that momentum in the second set for a 6-3 victory that clinched the match. This is the second time in the last three matches that Quigley has been the decisive fourth point. Quigley ends the regular season with a remarkable 22-1 record in dual matches, including an 11-0 record against SEC foes.
Moments after Quigley clinched the match, Musialek would increase the lead to 5-1 with his strong win over No. 94 Austin at No. 2 singles. The native of Dax, France, controlled the first set 6-3, before both players went back and forth in the second set. Musialek was able to grab a key break late in the second to go up 5-3 and then hold serve to earn the 6-4 victory.
Roberts finished the scoring for Kentucky, earning a 6-0, 7-6 (5) win at court six over Michael Retta, while Vanderbilt earned its lone point of the match at court four when Offerdahl took down Jomby in three sets 3-6, 6-3, 12-10.
Vanderbilt (7-14, 2-9 SEC) entered the weekend ranked 43rd in the nation. The Commodores have now lost six consecutive matches this season, all to highly ranked foes.
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