April 15, 2011 9:40:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State men''s tennis is back.
With back-to-back wins against the University of Alabama and Auburn last weekend, MSU clinched the Southeastern Conference Western Division title, snapping the University of Mississippi''s nine-year stranglehold on the division.
Up until last weekend, MSU hadn''t won a division or league title since 1996, when it won the SEC tournament.
The 1990s were a golden era for MSU tennis, as the program captured SEC regular-season titles in 1992 and ''93 and an SEC indoor title in ''92.
No one knows better what tennis success in maroon and white is like than coach Per Nilsson, a player on the 1993 team.
In his previous three years as coach, Nilsson guided the Bulldogs to 10 regular-season league wins.
To reverse the program''s fortunes, especially against SEC competition, Nilsson knew he needed depth beyond two quality singles players and a reliable doubles team.
This season, armed with three singles players ranked in the top 100 and two doubles teams in the top 85 nationally, the Bulldogs are 7-3 in SEC duals entering Saturday''s regular-season finale against Ole Miss, which beat MSU 4-1 earlier this season in Jackson.
"They were doing what we were doing in the 90s and just kept on rolling," Nilsson said of Ole Miss. "When I came here, one of our goals was to get back on track and top them."
Kentucky, which defeated MSU 6-1, is the only team to beat the Bulldogs handily. MSU lost to Georgia and Florida 4-3.
George Coupland (9-9) and Artem Ilyushin (10-8) have split time as the team''s No. 1 and No. 2 singles players, but the Bulldogs'' depth has been the difference. Louis Cant (14-3) and James Chaudry (11-4) and freshmen Malte Stropp (14-2) and Zach White (10-6) have given Nilsson his most complete lineup.
"We went into matches (in previous years) knowing we were down two or three to zero," Nilsson said. "Sometimes we''d get the other ones, but it''s just so hard when you give another team three points. This year, I felt we had a chance everywhere."
The success spells positive things for the future. The six-man singles lineup will return next season.
Cant, a junior, has adjusted to playing at the back end of the lineup. Last year, he was MSU''s No. 1 singles player and an alternate for the 2010 NCAA tournament.
This season, he has played all but three matches at No. 5 singles.
Nilsson said Cant was taken back by what seemed like a demotion, but he made the most of it and realized the team''s depth allowed the coaching staff to arrange the lineup based on who they are playing each week.
"All top six guys on our team are good and can play everywhere in the lineup, so it doesn''t matter," Cant said. "Every win is important, so if you can win at four or five every time, it doesn''t matter where we play."
Stropp, who has been named SEC Freshman of the Week three times this season, has had an even greater transition. The freshman, who is from Germany, grew up playing on clay and carpeted surfaces and had never played on hard court surfaces before arriving at MSU. He said he struggled adjusting to the bounce of the ball in the fall and had to adjust his serve. He described himself as "a grinder," often relying on breaking an opponent''s serve.
"If you''re gonna break on hard court it''s tough to come back into the set," Stropp said. "On clay court, I was just putting in my serve and trying to break the other guy as often as I can. I kind of changed my playing style a bit and that''s helping me now. I can dictate my serve to points and that helps out there."
On Saturday, MSU will attempt to do what no one on the roster has accomplished: beat Ole Miss.
Cant said the rivalry between the schools carries over to the tennis court but only adds a bit more luster to what he called "just another game."
"It''s not as important as the matches against Georgia and Tennessee because they''re (ranked) even higher," Cant said.
MSU will play Ole Miss with a bye in the SEC tournament at stake. Nilsson said there''s a small chance of being a No. 3 seed, but a win would clinch the bye and likely set up a quarterfinal match against Florida, the host team.