Coastal Carolina

Coastal Carolina men’s tennis ready for NCAA tournament opener

Tennis coach Chris Powers’ Coastal Carolina team is prepared for a battle against Wake Forest on Friday in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Tennis coach Chris Powers’ Coastal Carolina team is prepared for a battle against Wake Forest on Friday in the first round of the NCAA tournament. jlee@thesunnews.com

Coach Chris Powers knows his Coastal Carolina men’s tennis team faces long odds in its NCAA tournament opener against No. 6-seeded Wake Forest on Friday, but he also knows the Chanticleers have nothing to lose at this point.

That’s been his message to his team as it has prepared to head to Winston-Salem, N.C., for just the second NCAA tournament appearance in program history.

“We don’t know how good we are. We went 21-3, we only lost one match outside, [but] we haven’t seen this level of competition yet,” Powers said. “So we don’t know how good we can be against it, and that’s what I keep telling the guys, ‘Until someone can outfight us and clearly has the talent [advantage] against us, we’ve got nothing to lose. Let’s just go up there and throw our best shot and see what happens and hope they’re not ready.’”

This season has already been more than anyone in the program could have expected after the Chanticleers lost their top two players from last year.

It’s exciting because you just never know when you’re going to be back [in the NCAA tournament]. With us moving into the tougher conference next year it’s going to be a bigger challenge to get back to it, so we knew going into this season this was going to be our best shot maybe in the short term. We made it happen.

CCU men’s tennis coach Chris Powers

The team went 8-0 in the Big South before going on to win the conference tournament, developing a penchant for coming through in clutch time and again along the way. The Chants’ only losses came at William & Mary at the start of the season, at Duke back in February and against Elon in late March.

Otherwise, they just kept finding a way to win, posting the best overall record in program history while becoming just the third Coastal Carolina men’s tennis team to sweep the Big South regular season and tournament titles.

“The way that we built the team, we built it on guys that we knew were going to be really scrappy, character guys, team-builder guys,” Powers said. “What we thought we had is a team that could win the conference championship in the tournament like we did. We won two of those matches 4-3 and they were dogfights. We thought we had built that. We didn’t know we would go in as the regular-season champ, unbeaten as the 1 seed.”

Junior Jabor Al-Mutawa has been the team’s top player, going 9-6 at No. 1 singles and 7-0 at No. 2 singles. Junior Vuk Velickovic is 5-2 at No. 1 and 15-2 at No. 2. And senior Pedro Leme has enjoyed a breakout season with a 13-6 record while playing mostly at No. 3 singles. Leme and Velickovic, meanwhile, have been the Chants’ top doubles team, posting a 16-3 record.

Coastal Carolina made its first NCAA tournament appearance in 2013, losing 4-0 to Duke. While Powers said his team knows it will be a decided underdog again, he doesn’t want the guys conceding anything just yet.

“The way I put it is it would have to be a perfect storm. Wake Forest is coming off beating the No. 1 team in the country to win the ACC championship,” he said. “We had a good talk in the locker room about not worrying about the uniform on the other side of the court. For the most part the biggest thing is just doing what we’ve done all along, which is fighting through every point, trying to find a way to get it done.”

Regardless of what happens, though, it’s been a rewarding season for the program, especially in its final year in the Big South.

“It’s exciting because you just never know when you’re going to be back [in the NCAA tournament],” Powers said. “With us moving into the tougher conference next year it’s going to be a bigger challenge to get back to it, so we knew going into this season this was going to be our best shot maybe in the short term. We made it happen.”

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