April 28, 2009
Up Next: NCAA Championships - First Round
Who: New Mexico (20-5) vs. Minnesota (18-7)
When/Where: Friday (May 8), Los Angeles, Calif.
At Stake: Winner advances to play winner of USC/UC Santa Barbara; second round is Saturday, May 9.
By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
There was only one bubble hovering near the New Mexico men's tennis team late Tuesday afternoon as they huddled around the big-screen TV in the Lobo Tennis Club waiting to see the field for the 2009 NCAA Championships.
It was the bubble covering the UNM indoor courts.
There was no NCAA bubble for the Lobos to pop this season since they pushed their way into the NCAA field this past weekend with a 4-3 nail-biting win over TCU in the Mountain West Conference championship match.
"When you know you are in the tournament, you are so much more relaxed," said senior Johnny Parkes, the MWC Player of The Year. "Last year, we were on the edge of our seats hoping to get in and extend the season. And then when you don't see your name, you are thinking that you played your last match a few days ago.
"It was nice to take it as it comes. We were just smiling and waiting."
The Lobos knew the name "New Mexico" would appear on the board, but there was still a loud and proud shout from the Lobos when that named appeared next to first-round opponent, Minnesota. If the Lobos advance past Minnesota on Friday, May 8, they'll play the winner of Southern California vs. UC Santa Barbara.
The Trojans, as the top seed in that four-team cluster, get to host a first and second round battle.
"One of our goals every year is to get to the NCAA Tournament and to get back in this fashion (MWC champs) is exciting for these guys and especially exciting for my seniors," said Lobo coach Alan Dils. "The seniors have been working hard for this for four years.
"Last year, we were on the bubble and didn't get in and that's tough. This was easier because we were waiting for our name to pop up rather than hoping it would pop up. That is far, far better."
The Lobos haven't been to the NCAA tourney since 2004. Senior Graeme Kassautzki said it wasn't so bad missing the elite field in his freshman and sophomore year, but it really hit hard in 2008 when the Lobos' name wasn't called.
"The first two years we weren't watching that closely because we didn't expect to get in," he said. "Last year, we felt we had a really good chance and it was devastating to see your season end like that. Last year, it was all butterflies and it was hard to digest not making it.
"This has been a dream since my freshman year. It's a great way to finish your college career."
The Lobos were joined in the NCAA bracket by TCU of the MWC, which finished second to UNM in the MWC Tournament held last week in Albuquerque. The Horned Frogs got an at-large bid and the Lobos drew the automatic bid that goes to the tourney champ. Thus, there was no nail biting by the Lobos watching the tube on Tuesday.
It was a much more relaxed time for the Lobos, who had to watch senior Miles Bugby win a three-set tiebreaker on Saturday to claim the 4-3 win over top-seeded TCU.
"We are all still buzzing after the win, but we have to get over that and focus on the NCAA Tournament," said Parkes.
Said Dils: "We beat (Minnesota) here in Albuquerque two years ago. We beat Indiana this year and Indiana beat them this year. But nothing is going to be easy."
The Lobos need to post two wins in Los Angeles in order to advance to the NCAA finals to be held in College Station, Texas, May 14-19. The Gophers are ranked No. 33. UNM beat Minnesota 5-2 in 2007 in Albuquerque.
"Any seeded team is very good and USC has been very good this year," said Dils. "But almost no team is unbeatable. If we get there (second round), the pressure will be on USC.
"Now, it's about heart and desire and I know that my guys will go out and play hard and put it all on the line. At this point, I'm not even sure experience is an issue. It's about who wants it the most."
The Lobos obviously showed in the MWC tourney that they wanted a league title and a sure berth into postseason play. That win over TCU did not come easy.
This year the TV watching was a walk in the park and a Lobo season was extended with a trip to sunny Southern California. Like sophomore Joe Wood said, "It should be great fun."