The NCAA Championships have finally arrived on the Farm, as the eighth-seeded Stanford men’s tennis team begins its postseason journey on its home court today with a matchup against Army.
It’s been an up-and-down season for the Cardinal. Stanford jumped out to a hot start with a 7-0 record, then lost five of six matches in its toughest stretch of the season only to end on a 10-game winning streak, finishing 18-5 overall and 5-1 in Pac-10 play.
Head coach John Whitlinger’s team hopes to carry the momentum of its current winning streak into the NCAAs and is excited to get back on the courts after nearly a month since its last match, when the Cardinal defeated then-No. 15 Cal on April 23.
Whitlinger says his team is ready to go.
“We’re anxious to get back into a dual match situation, and guys are fired up that we get to host the first and second round,” he said.
It won’t be an easy start, as the visiting Army squad is also coming in hot—the Black Knights have won 12 of their last 16 matches, earning the Patriot League’s automatic berth to the NCAAs by winning the conference tournament.
The Black Knights (13-11, 7-0 Patriot League) haven’t had much top-level competition this season—Stanford will be the first ranked team they’ve played all year. In contrast, 20 of the Cardinal’s 23 matches have been against ranked opponents.
But Whitlinger is unwilling to look past this first match. When asked what worries him most about the matchup, Whitlinger highlighted his unfamiliarity with the Army squad—the Black Knights aren’t a team that Stanford has played recently.
“I don’t know a lot about them to be honest,” Whitlinger said. “I know they’re one of the 64 teams and therefore a strong team, but I don’t know a lot of specifics about their players. I do know their coach [Jim Poling], and he’s a great teacher so I know he’ll have them ready to play—that’s for sure. We just have to make sure we are as well.”
The Stanford men have a rich history in the NCAA Tournament, with 17 team titles and a number of singles and doubles titles to boot. The team hasn’t taken home the ultimate prize since 2000, but is confident going into this tournament—not only is Stanford peaking at the right time and riding a ten-game winning streak, but the Cardinal will enjoy home advantage throughout the entire tournament. Stanford has a 13-1 record at Taube this season.
Whitlinger was cautious about reading too much into the benefits of hosting the tournament, but admitted it will be a factor.
“You always feel good when you have a lot of people pulling for you, that’s for sure,” Whitlinger said. “I know that when we do get a decent crowd here they pull for you hard, and it pumps you up as a player<\p>.<\p>.<\p>.<\p>and it pumps you up as a coach.
“It might make a little difference here and there,” Whitlinger continued. “In a certain point or a certain match, when things aren’t going your way, when something happens on the court that gets the crowd going and gets you going, it can only help us. It definitely can’t hurt us, so we’re looking forward to it.”
Whitlinger admitted to taking a quick look at the Cardinal’s draw—if Stanford defeats Army, it will go on to face the winner of Cal Poly vs. Washington. Other dangerous opponents Stanford could face in the first few rounds include No.1-seeded Virginia and No. 9-seeded Texas A&M.
“I’ve been telling the guys not to look ahead too far, but you can take a peek a little,” he said. “It’s a tough road for sure. I don’t know about Army, but I know that if we happen to get by them, we barely got by Washington up in Seattle. They’re a very excellent team, and Cal Poly is having a good year, so whoever comes out of that match, it will be a challenge.
“And then if you look beyond that you get, potentially, the nine-seed and the one-seed,” he said. “It’s not an easy road, but it’s the road we’ve been given and it’s a road we’re looking forward to go on.”
Stanford starts its championship push at 2 p.m. this afternoon against Army.