The Tennessee tennis team is heading into this weekend's SEC Tournament in Oxford, Miss., and according to head coach Sam Winterbotham the team is peaking at the right time.
"This is where the fun starts," Winterbotham said. "We've talked about it all year as a team. Three doubles teams competing and six singles players apiece."
Winterbotham and the No. 2 seed Vols won't be put away early either — at least they hope.
"We're not going down quickly," the seventh-year coach said. "We're not getting frustrated. We're emotionally (all) the same. We have the same heartbeat and I felt today was the best example of that."
The Vols example came at the expense of Auburn, who the Vols defeated on 4-0 in their regular season finale. But the Tigers can get a rematch with UT if they beat Vanderbilt in their opening round match on Thursday.
"It's always a big moment especially when you're one of the top teams in the conference and your team has a legitimate chance to win it," senior Taylor Patrick said. "To win a conference title my senior year would be awesome. I kind of like to rub it in."
For Patrick, winning another SEC championship would be a nice finish to his career, but it would also give him some bragging rights over his friend and former Tennessee teammate, Rhyne Williams. Both Williams and Patrick have two SEC championships to their name at the moment."I'd like to tell him, 'Well you have two rings and I have three,'" Patrick said.On the court, UT's three seniors, Patrick, Edward Jones and John Collins, will all try to make one last run for a conference crown in hopes for one last special moment together.
The trio won a combined 52 of their 85 matches this season (140 combined career singles wins at UT), six doubles tournament championships, six combined SEC Academic Honor Rolls (freshman honors included) and back-to-back SEC regular season championships altogether.
"It'd be really special, especially with this group of guys (since) we're so close," Patrick said. "I'd love to have that memory with them."
Tennessee sophomore Mikelis Libietis (33-5) finished conference play 19-1 and earned the highest ranking of his UT career (No. 3 on 3/26/13). His .868 winning percentage this season, if the season ended today, would place him at third all-time in UT history. Heading into Friday, the No. 4-ranked sophomore returns for his second shot at the SEC title. Last year, the then freshman kept UT in its quarterfinal match with Mississippi State, upsetting then-No. #10 Artem Illyushin, MSU, 7-6 (6), 6-2 in the Vols' losing effort. However, being one of the nation's premier players comes with a hefty responsibility.
"It's hard," Winterbotham said. "When you win all the time, you feel like people expect you to win all the time. When you're playing on (Court No. 1), you're playing great players every week."
Trailing Auburn senior Andres Mies 5-1 on Sunday, Libietis and Winterbotham were talking on the bench.
"He got down and we just talked about relaxing," Winterbotham said. "It was hard for me and him to have a conversation where we could coach because you could tell he was so frustrated and he was carrying the emotions from one point to the next." That's when Winterbotham had a few choice words for the UT sophomore.
"Just relax," Winterbotham told Libietis. "It's 5-1. Just relax and have some fun.'"
The Priekuli, Latvia, native didn't have to be told twice, and went on a 6-1 tear in the second set to sweep his singles match with Mies (6-4, 7-6). Winterbotham said Libietis is "a nightmare" for anyone to play and believes the sophomore will stay that way in the postseason if he "just relaxes."
"When he does that, nobody's going to enjoy playing him," Winterbotham said. Tennessee will play the winner of Thursday's Auburn-Vanderbilt first round matchup on Friday at noon. The Vols are 5-1 all-time in SEC tourney play against Auburn, but they have never faced Vanderbilt in the conference tournament.
Let the fun begin.