By Zach Abolverdi, Correspondent
For the first time in 16 years, the Florida men’s tennis team finished its conference slate undefeated and atop of the SEC.
The No. 3 Gators defeated 18th-ranked South Carolina 6-1 on Sunday to capture the program’s first regular-season conference championship since 2003. UF already owned a share of the title going into the match, but the players wanted it to themselves.
“For our guys, this is something they wanted,” Florida coach Bryan Shelton said. “We knew that we had a share of the title, but these guys didn’t want to share. They’re good guys, but they did not want to share that title with Mississippi State or anyone else. Just really proud of our team.”
Before Florida (20-2, 12-0 SEC) could shed tears of joy Sunday, several players found themselves crying before their regular-season finale against the Gamecocks (15-8, 5-7). That meant Senior Day for McClain Kessler and Alfredo Perez, both of whom were honored prior to the top-20 showdown.
“Those two guys that have done so much for this program to help us to get to where we are now,” Shelton said. “To celebrate them with the ceremony, we had guys all in tears before we started the match. You’re not used to going into battle feeling emotional like that. But something sparked right after that.”
The Gators took the early advantage in doubles play with 6-1 wins by Kessler-Johannes Ingildsen and Andy Andrade-Duarte Vale. After struggling in doubles for most of the season, Shelton changed the pairings last weekend and mixed it up once again Sunday for the Gators’ 14th consecutive win.
“We started the doubles out and we only lose three games in three matches,” Shelton said, with Oliver Crawford and Perez also up 4-1. “So to come out and play that well was big. It’s been our Achilles’ heel throughout the season, but the last two or three matches we’ve really found our rhythm.”
That momentum carried into singles play, where the Gators won all but one of the six matches.
Freshman Sam Riffice was the first to take two sets, finishing with a perfect regular-season record in SEC play. Kessler, who got the start on Court 6, also won a two-setter to improve his career record to 26-1 at home.
Ingildsen clinched the outright SEC title for the Gators with his two-set win on Court 4.
Following a 6-2 loss in his first set, Perez responded on Senior Day with back-to-back wins of 6-0 and 6-1. Andrade also won in three sets, while Crawford lost a two-set battle to the nation’s No. 9-ranked player, Paul Jubb.
Florida will host this week the SEC tournament, which begins Wednesday. The Gators earned the No. 1 seed and will play the winner of Alabama and Ole Miss on Friday at 3 p.m. in the quarterfinals.
Shelton’s squad won the tourney in 2016, but Sunday was his first time getting a Gatorade bath in his seven years at UF.
“I’m not sure if it was Gatorade or water, I hope it was water,” Shelton said. “I’m not too sticky, but I’ll take that any day. It’s been awhile since I’ve been doused with a jug of water and that tells you that you’ve done something. Just a lot to be thankful for. In moments like this, you realize just how lucky you are.”