High noon: Gators vs. Vols in NCAA men’s tennis Round of 16

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Florida coach Bryan Shelton talks to his team during the match against the Florida State Seminoles earlier this month. The Gators face Baylor today in the Orlando area. [Lauren Bacho/Gainesville Sun]

By Jim Harvin, Correspondent

Fourteen of the 16 seeded teams in Division I men’s tennis have advanced to the NCAA Super Regional this weekend.

Florida (23-3), the No. 3 overall seed, is home for its final match today, hosting No. 14 seed Tennessee (22-7) at noon at the Varsity Courts. The winner advances to the NCAA quarterfinals and beyond at the USTA National Campus in Orlando May 16-19.

“It’s kind of what we’ve said all year long — let’s make the most out of each day,” said UF’s Bryan Shelton, the 2019 SEC Coach of the Year.

“We want to make each day count. Let’s practice with purpose. Let’s enjoy the opportunities to get out here and play, to be able to get ourselves acclimated to the heat together, to find ways to get better in doubles and singles and to get in better shape. There are so many positive things that we’re working on right now. We want to feel like our very best tennis is still ahead of us.”

This marks the third meeting this year between the two SEC rivals. Florida won the first meeting in Knoxville March 17, 5-2, but was unable to close out the second meeting in Gainesville on April 20.

The Vols rallied from a 3-1 deficit to take the SEC Tournament semifinal, 4-3, ending a 15-match UF winning streak while dealing the Gators their lone home loss of the season.

After the tight upset, several Tennessee players celebrated by doing a mock Gator Chomp at center court. Though the Vols lost to Mississippi State in the tournament final, Florida was understandably irked.

“I don’t think it gets any better than this,” UF sophomore Duarte Vale said. “We get to play our last match at home in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA against a team that we’ve won once to and lost once to. We know it’s going to be a great tennis match and a great tournament. We’re all excited and pumped.”

Shelton feels UF is up for the challenge.

“There is so much motivation there,” he said. “There’s already plenty, and then losing to them the last time provides a little bit more. It’s going to help us find that edge that we need to start the match and to stay focused and sustain the effort from start to finish.”

Florida posted a perfect 12-0 SEC mark in winning the league’s 2019 regular-season title.

During their season-long, 15-match winning streak, the Gators beat 13 teams ranked in the ITA Top 50, including eight in the Top 25.

“We don’t like to lose to Tennessee or anybody else,” Vale noted. “Obviously that last loss didn’t feel good, but I think it fueled us to work even harder for the first two matches of this tournament and it’s fueling us right now.”

The Gators are a young team, with eight of their 11 players freshmen or sophomores led by No. 1 singles man Oliver Crawford, ranked No. 9 nationally. UF has just two seniors, McClain Kessler and Alfredo Perez.

“This is the best time of the year, when you find yourself in the postseason and winning matches and keeping this group together as long as we possibly can,” Shelton said. “We’ve got two phenomenal seniors in McClain and Alfredo. Every time we win a match, it just buys us some more time. This team will never be the same again.”

Today

What: Round 16 of the NCAA men’s tennis championships

Who: No. 14 Tennessee vs. No. 3 Florida

When: 12 p.m.

Where: Alfred A. Ring Tennis Complex on UF campus