With a No. 1 seed in the Big West Conference Tournament, an undefeated regular-season record against Big West foes and a second-place finish in the conference tournament, the Cal Poly men’s tennis team hung up its towels with a bright outlook for next season.
“Coach and I both agree that watching the whole team come together from the beginning of the season to playing at potentially our highest level was extremely rewarding,” senior Matt Baca said. “Even though we might not have been as strong as other teams on paper, the heart and determination that the guys showed during every practice carried over to our matches, which led to Poly’s first Big West regular-season title cup.”
The Mustangs went 4-0 in their Big West matches during the regular season. Among the most memorable of those victories was the team’s No. 1-seed clinching, 4-3 home win over UC Irvine on April 15.
“My most memorable tennis experience came when the UC Irvine match was tied at 3-3 and came down to my match,” Baca said. “Playing in front of the largest and loudest Cal Poly crowd in history and winning that match was definitely an experience that I will remember for the rest of my life.”
Freshman teammate Rob Foy agreed: “It was a confidence booster to know that we were (the) No. 1 seed for the first time ever, and to beat UC Irvine 4-3 was an amazing feeling. We knew we had a crosshair on us.”
Going up against UC Riverside in the semifinals of the Big West tourney, which ran from April 27 to 29 in Indian Wells, was the Mustangs’ last hurdle prior to the title match.
The Mustangs plowed through the Highlanders 4-1, granting them a spot in the finals for the first time in school history.
“I know our team had great confidence playing UCR because a week earlier, we beat them pretty easily,” sophomore Nick Berger said of a 4-0 home win on April 14. “We also got to Indian Wells three days before we played to train in the 95-plus degree heat every day. This made us feel prepared to play the best tennis of the season.”
After taking the victory, it was time for the nerves to kick in and the team’s focus was more important than ever.
“I remember since the moment I woke up until I had started warming up I had never been so nervous for any match, test, or interview in my life,” Baca said. “I knew that playing loose, aggressive, and dictating the points would allow myself the best opportunity to win, which is exactly what our coach (Justin McGrath) told us to do.”
The Mustangs went up against rival and No. 3 seed UC Santa Barbara, which Cal Poly had defeated 4-3 earlier in the season.
“Before the UCSB match we were pumped up,” Berger said. “We were confident going into the match since we beat them before, but they had injured players during the regular-season match. Now they had their full lineup and we knew that on paper, we were the underdogs. We would have to fight for every point and just want it more than them to win.”
The stakes were high and the title was within reach of both teams. The Mustangs took the No. 1 doubles match as Baca and senior Kyle Roybal won 8-4.
“I think Kyle and I both knew that we were not going to lose because at the time, it was potentially our last college career match,” Baca said.
Cal Poly then took two hard losses in the other doubles sets, giving UCSB the advantage going into singles.
The most crucial loss hit when Foy and sophomore Darryn Young lost a tiebreaker match 9-8 in the third set.
Baca continued to drill his opponents with a singles win against UCSB’s Bijan Hejazi after two sets of 6-2. The No. 5 match saw Foy take care of business against UCSB’s Josh Finkelstein, 6-3 and 6-1.
However, UCSB took the other four singles matches, giving the Gauchos the final win and the Big West title for the second straight year.
“UCSB had a great team this year, although plagued with injury,” Foy said. “We were all disappointed to come so close to a Big West championship, but we left it all out on the court and you can’t ask for more than that.”
Still, Cal Poly made significant strides in 2007 under McGrath, who in his first year as the Mustangs’ head coach helped the team go from 0-3 in regular-season conference play in 2006 to 4-0 in 2007.
The year also marked the program’s first appearance in the Big West title match and its first-ever No. 1 seed for the conference tourney.
Baca earned first-team All-Big West honors in singles and in doubles along with Roybal.
“Being a senior and the eldest on the team was very rewarding from the other players,” Baca said. “The whole team camaraderie was unlike any other of my previous years and having the guys look up to me both on and off the court was extremely reassuring.”
Baca plans on moving to Southern California for a job and playing in summer money tournaments as well as competing in doubles matches with Roybal.
Other awards were given to Cal Poly standouts, including Young – an Honorable Mention pick on the All-Big West singles list.
Berger and junior Fred DeWitte were named to the Honorable Mention squad in doubles.
Confidence and experience could be considerable factors for next year.
“I’m going to come out and say it early: We will win the Big West Conference next year!” Berger said. “We are getting an excellent recruiting class for next year and with hard work, we will have a better team than this year.”
The team’s sole freshman, Foy, is also looking forward to another successful season.
“Being the only freshman was great,” Foy said. “I definitely had to grow up quickly on and off the court. This year was my first taste of college tennis and I couldn’t believe the huge step up from juniors. I believe I improved a lot this year and with training over the summer, I can’t wait for next season.”
The Mustangs praised McGrath, who coached Arkansas to the NCAA Tournament in 2001 and 2002 and Louisiana-Lafayette in 2006, for helping build the program.
“I think individually and as a team we overachieved our expectations from the beginning of the season when coach McGrath first arrived,” Baca said. “The entire success this year was because Justin was not only a coach on the court, but a friend, mentor and father figure off the court.”
Berger added: “It was the first year for our head coach and I felt like he has done a great job this year. He has gotten the best performance out of all of us. He is going to do many great things for our program through the years.”