Florida men's tennis opens NCAA Tournament at home
Published: Friday, May 10, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, May 9, 2013 at 9:15 p.m.
First-year Florida head coach Bryan Shelton was understandably concerned a few weeks ago that his squad might wind up on the outside looking in when the top 16 seeds for this year's NCAA Tennis Tournament were announced at the end of the regular season.
But thanks to a strong finish by the Gators (15-10) that entailed winning four of their last five matches, they finished with a No. 15 national ranking and, more importantly, earned one of the 16 host spots for the first two rounds of this year's NCAA tournament today and tomorrow at UF's Linder Stadium.
“Our team really came through at the end of the season, and we really finished on a positive note,” Shelton said. “We beat a lot of quality teams, some of them on the road. I thought we played extremely well at the SEC Tournament, beating South Carolina who we had lost to earlier (in the regular season). We did some things to create the opportunity for ourselves, and now we are able to benefit from playing at home. We've got to take advantage of it.”
The Gators, the No. 15 overall seed, are the top seed in the four-team Gainesville Regional and will take on Western Athletic Conference champion Denver (11-11) at 4 p.m. today in the second of two first-round matches.
The match will follow the tournament opener between 18th-ranked California (14-9), the Pac-12 runner-up, and FSU (18-10). Those two teams square off at 1 p.m.
Junior Stephane Piro, in his first season with the program, holds down the No. 1 singles spot for UF and also teams with senior Bob van Overbeek at No. 1 doubles.
Piro, a second-team All-SEC selection this year, became eligible in January after sitting out last season and has a 12-7 mark in dual matches. He played near the top of the lineup all season, including No. 1 singles in the last nine matches, and has risen to No. 56 in the singles rankings with four wins against ranked opponents.
He and van Overbeek, meanwhile, are ranked as the No. 25 tandem in the nation.
No one, though, has been hotter than junior Mike Alford, who has won eight of his last nine matches at No. 4 singles, all in straight sets, to move to a team-best 14-7 dual-match record. In addition, he and freshman teammate Luke Johnson come into today's action having won four straight doubles matches.
“I thought I improved a lot as the season went along,” said Alford, who was named to the SEC All-Tournament team. “We worked a lot on doubles this year, and as we went on we just kept getting better and better. Everything just started improving in both doubles and my singles game, so it feels great to be playing well here at the end of the season.”
The Gators are playing in the NCAA Tournament for the 23rd year in a row and are hosting the first and second rounds for the sixth straight year.
A win today over the Pioneers will send UF into tomorrow's second-round match against the FSU-Cal winner with a berth in the NCAA Round of 16 in Urbana, Ill., on the line.
While Shelton admits he knows little about Denver, he has made sure the Gators are not looking ahead.
“As every coach says, you've just got to win the first one,” he said. “It's really about us getting focused on Denver and getting through that match so that we can have another opportunity on Saturday. I haven't seen them play, but they look like a dangerous team, and other coaches I've talked to say they're probably the very best No. 4 (regional) seed out there. We know it's going to be a tough test, and it's good we're going in with our eyes wide open. We know we can't take anything for granted.”
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