Saturday brought a certain amount of déjà vu for Stanford men’s tennis.
Unfortunately for the No. 27 Cardinal, that feeling of history repeating itself didn’t bode well for them. For its second straight outing, the team was ousted by a lower-seeded opponent in its first match of a tournament, as Stanford (14-6, 5-2 Pac-12) followed up a tough 4-2 loss to No. 49 Oregon in the Pac-12 Tournament with a 4-2 loss in the first round of the NCAA Tournament over the weekend, this time to No. 43 Tulsa (16-12, 0-0 Conference USA).
“A bounce here, a bounce there, things could have been a little different in our last two matches,” head coach John Whitlinger said. “But I’ve got to give credit to Tulsa where credit is due. They did a really good job [Saturday]. But again, it was a great effort from our guys. I’m really proud of them.”
The loss was eerily reminiscent of the loss to the Ducks that knocked the Cardinal out of the conference tournament, as the match again followed the pattern of Stanford jumping out to a quick lead by clinching the doubles point and getting a fast singles win on the back courts before relinquishing a furious comeback from its opponents.
The doubles pairing of senior Jamin Ball and junior John Morrissey got out to a fast start for the Cardinal and easily handled fifth-year senior Clifford Marsland and sophomore Dylan McCloskey — the 27th-ranked doubles pair in the country — by a score of 8-2. In his return from an injury that kept him sidelined for most of the end of the season, sophomore Maciek Romanowicz paired up with sophomore Trey Strobel for an 8-6 win on court three to net the Cardinal an early 1-0 lead.
And this time, it was junior Robert Stineman that got the quick singles victory for the Cardinal, with an efficient 6-1, 6-1 victory on court six that put Stanford up 2-0. However, that would prove to be just about all that went right for Stanford in the singles rounds.
“Again, it was almost a carbon copy of the Oregon match,” Whitlinger said. “Win the doubles point and have some opportunities. We didn’t win four first sets this time — they came out and were playing strong — but we had chances in third sets, chances all over the place. [Daniel] Ho served for the first set, Trey Strobel served for the first set, Anthony Tsodikov served for the match…we just couldn’t get it done. They battled, our guys battled, and they just came out on top.”
Although Morrissey won his first set on court one in a ranked battle between the 118th-ranked Morrissey and the 74th-ranked Marsland, he lost his grip on the match after the first set and surrendered a pair of quick 6-2 losses to get the push back for Tulsa started.
That was quickly followed up by a straight-set loss for Ho, who lost a heartbreaker in the last match of his Stanford career by coming tantalizingly close to winning both of his sets before dropping both in back-and-forth tiebreakers. The final score of 7-6 (5), 7-6 (5) was representative of how hard he fought before ultimately dropping both of his sets.
Strobel and Tsodikov rounded out the match for the Cardinal by dropping both of their matches after tough three-set marathons. Although Tsodikov had served for the match in his third set, he allowed McCloskey, his opponent, to claw back into the match and ultimately win in a tiebreak to clinch the Golden Hurricane’s berth in the round of 32.
“It’s hard to put a finger on it,” Whitlinger said. “They just couldn’t quite convert the big points in the big games when we needed to in the last couple of matches. During the year, we were fortunate enough to be able to do that. I’m not going to say the odds caught up with us, but we were fortunate in winning some of our matches earlier, and we were a little bit unfortunate in losing these two — the last two matches we played. We were in a position to win, and we just couldn’t quite get it done.”
The loss rounded out a season for Stanford that exceeded the expectations of many, particularly in the face of many of the injuries that the team had to face throughout the season. The loss of Romanowicz for one of the toughest stretches of the season put the doubles and singles lineups into flux and gave the players uncertainty as to the structure of the team down the stretch.
“For what they’ve gone through all season through long and what they’ve battled through — they battled through injuries — this season has been remarkable,” Whitlinger said. “Roy Lederman, a freshman, didn’t play all year. Maciek was out a lot of the year. Nobody batted an eye. Everybody stepped up, and when their name was called, they were ready to play.”
And it was a remarkable season indeed for a young team that handled all of the uncertainty with aplomb and really grew together into a tight unit that won 11 of its final 13 regular-season matches and compiled a 14-4 regular-season record. When next season comes around and most of the Cardinal’s key contributors will return with this experience under their belts — with what they hope will be more consistency in their lineup — they will look to be the core for a team that again makes a special run into the postseason.
“I was really proud of how they handled all of the adversity that came our way — they handled it pretty darn well,” Whitlinger said. “They’ll be better for it come next year…as a coach, I couldn’t be more proud.”
Contact Do-Hyoung Park at [email protected].