May 16, 2013 9:46:39 AM
Matthew Stevens - [email protected]
Right after the Mississippi State University men's tennis players arrived in Champaign, Ill., coach Per Nilsson told them to get comfortable because he intended to make an extended stay.
Nilsson didn't want the Bulldogs to be satisfied that they helped the program reach the Round of 16 in the NCAA Team Championship for the first time in 12 years. Instead, he wants them to build on victories against Austin Peay University and Harvard University and make a run at a national title.
"Every year there's one school that hasn't made it to the Sweet 16 in a long time and is happy to play its one match and leave satisfied," Nilsson said. "I've made it as clear as possible that is not going to be us."
No. 10 MSU will try today to secure its first national quarterfinal showing since 1998 when it meets No. 7 University of Tennessee at noon at the University of Illinois' Atkins Tennis Center.
Tennessee (28-5) edged MSU 4-2 in Starkville earlier this season, but Nilsson expects a different match this time. Mikelis Libietis, the top-ranked singles player in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association's May 2 rankings, will lead the Volunteers into the match. Libietis teams with Hunter Reese, who is No. 34, to form the nation's No. 1 doubles squad.
"We know what Tennessee is all about, and, quite frankly, they're going to be favored in No. 1 singles and doubles but not unbeatable in any of the matches," Nilsson said. "We know we're just better than Tennessee, and we need to prove it in our first match."
The freshman-junior combination of No. 6 Romain Bogaerts and No. 57 Malte Stropp will lead MSU. The Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Year, Bogaerts has 28 victories this season, and is 15-6 in dual-match play. Stropp, a second-team All-Southeastern Conference selection, is 15-7 and one victory away from collecting his 70th career victory.
Both of those players participated in the USTA/ITA National Indoor Championships in November in New York City. Nilsson said qualifying and advancing in a national tournament like that should shield Bogaerts and Stropp from the nerves of a NCAA tournament match.
"A lot of our top guys despite being young have been through this type of environment," Nilsson said. "I don't worry about the pressure getting to them. I worry about them being able to execute the basic things in their match."
Stropp won both of his matches against Austin Peay and Harvard University in straight sets at No. 2 singles.
"We're very excited with how well Malte is playing," Nilsson said. "He'll be somebody that isn't going to be intimidated by the surroundings or the player across the net."
Stropp and doubles partner Jordan Angus will have another chance to knock off a top-ranked doubles duo. They defeated Auburn University's No. 1 team of Dan Cochrane and Andreas Mies in dual-match play, marking MSU's first doubles victory against the nation's No. 1 team since 2001.
The winner of today's match will face the winner of No. 3 and second-seeded University of Virginia and No. 18 University of California at Berkeley, which will begin at the same time today. The national quarterfinals will be at noon Saturday.
"This program has taken another step forward but has so much more to go," Nilsson said. "I don't want our guys to be satisfied with being one of the top 16 programs. That's not good enough at Mississippi State because they're more talented than that, and they know it, too."