MEN’S TENNIS: Cardinals stun Islanders, three-peat as Southland champions

Published 7:59 pm Monday, April 30, 2018

Lamar sports information

BEAUMONT — For a third consecutive season the Lamar men’s tennis team advanced to the Southland Conference Championship finals, and for a third straight year, the Cardinals will represent the Southland in the upcoming NCAA Championships.

The Cardinals defeated No. 2 seed Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, 4-3, Sunday afternoon at the Beaumont Municipal Tennis Center.

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“I’m just overjoyed for these guys,” said LU head coach Scott Shankles. “I knew all along they could do this. We put together a tough non-conference schedule that will prepare us for the conference season and Southland tournament. I firmly believe that was instrumental in us playing as well as we did this weekend. The crowd was also amazing all weekend long. You can’t ask for a more involved, energized crowd than what we had here – our guys fed off that energy. It was college athletics at its best.”

Some would argue it wasn’t supposed to be like this. The Cardinals graduated four All-Southland performers following the 2017 season, including a former player of the year. The 2018 version of the Cardinals was a freshman-laden team that had to win its final match of the regular season just to advance to the conference tournament. The Cardinals were rewarded for that victory by having to square off against the SLC regular-season champion, and undefeated, Incarnate Word Saturday. Fortunately for Shankles and company, no one told the players it wasn’t supposed to be like this.

The Cardinals rallied from an early deficit to dispense of the league’s other red birds in the semifinals. Sunday’s match was nearly a mirror image of the semifinal victory over UIW. The underdog Cardinals dropped matches on courts 1 and 2 doubles to fall behind 1-0 – a situation the Cardinals have seen numerous times this season and were well-equipped to handle.

“Oddly enough, our struggles in doubles this year probably helped us handle the situations we faced this week,” said Shankles. “I think the guys would agree that our play in doubles has been disastrous this season. I could see it in their face today. When we lost the point there was no panic. There was no discouragement in their faces, but it was pure confidence. There was a sense of ‘we’ve been here before, so let’s get back to work.’”

Things didn’t look so bright for the fourth-seeded Cardinals, playing in front of their owns fans, as the two teams split the first set on all six courts. Big Red finally dented the scoreboard at No. 4 singles when senior Logan Powell defeated the Islanders’ Thomas Rodrigues, 6-3, 6-3. Unfortunately, A&M-Corpus Christi had an answer surging back out in front on court No. 3.

The Islanders responded by winning the next two matches, and pulled within a point of celebration with a straight-sets victory at the No. 6 spot. The Cardinals now trailed by two with A&M-Corpus Christi leading on one court and the Red and White leading on the other two. LU needed to hold their two courts and rally no court No. 5 for the victory.

The Cardinals picked up one of those wins when junior Sebastian Santibanez ousted A&M-Corpus Christi’s William Mottet, 6-4, 6-3, at No. 2 singles. LU pulled back even at when senior Benny Schweizer defeated the Islanders, Francois Kellerman, 7-6 (7-4), 6-4, at the No. 1 position.

Schweizer’s victory placed all focus on court No. 5 and freshman Nicolas Mayr. A 2018 All-SLC selection in singles and doubles, Mayr dropped a heartbreaking opening set, 7-6 (7-5), to fall behind early. One of three Cardinals to drop his opening singles’ set, Mayr had to rally in the second to keep the match alive. Mayr battled to force the second set into a tiebreaker and came out on fire in the extra frame. Jumping out to a four-point lead, Mayr was in complete control but the back-and-forth nature of the entire match turned its focus on court No. 5. Corpus Christi’s Okkie Kellerman rallied to score the next five points and take a one-point lead before the pendulum swung back in LU’s favor. Mayr won the final three points to force a third set.

In the final set, Kellerman jumped out to a one-game lead, before Mayr rallied to tie and then surge ahead 5-4. Gaining back the advantage, Mayr wouldn’t let it slip away as the rookie stepped up to play the role of hero sending the Cardinals back to the NCAA Championships for a third consecutive season.

Mayr finished off the match with a 6-7 (5-7), 7-6 (7-5), 6-4, victory.

“Nico actually saved a match point in the second set,” said Shankles. “He has worked hard on the tennis court, weight room and in the classroom all season, as have all these guys. When either I, or one of my assistants, would speak with him we just encouraged him to stay positive, stay focused and this would work out. In the end, it all worked out for him, and the team. I don’t think we could’ve asked anything more of him. He just never quit fighting.”

About I.C. Murrell

I.C. Murrell was promoted to editor of The News, effective Oct. 14, 2019. He previously served as sports editor since August 2015 and has won or shared eight first-place awards from state newspaper associations and corporations. He was born in Memphis, Tennessee, grew up mostly in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and graduated from the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

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