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OXFORD, Miss. – Perhaps it’s fitting that the place where the Ole Miss men’s tennis team’s rise to elite status in college tennis began is where the Rebels head this weekend for the first round of the NCAA Championships. Making their 21st consecutive NCAA appearance in head coach Billy Chadwick’s final season at the helm, the Rebels will face Northwestern in the first round Saturday in South Bend, Indiana.
The two teams will square off at 9 a.m. CT at the Eck Tennis Center on the campus of Notre Dame. Notre Dame will play Wisconsin-Green Bay in the other first round match with the winners to meet Sunday at 12 p.m. CT. The winner of both matches advances to the Sweet Sixteen in Athens, Ga.
“We are looking forward to traveling up to South Bend for the NCAA Championships,” Chadwick said. “We have been playing our best tennis of the season, the last two weeks, and we’ve shown what we are capable of when we are healthy. I put Northwestern and Notre Dame up there with the good SEC teams. We are preparing like we are going to play Tennessee or Auburn on the road, because that’s the caliber of team we’re up against this weekend.”
For the past 20 years, the postseason was never a doubt for the Rebels. It was usually a question of which teams were coming to Oxford or where the Rebels might go. This year, the Rebels got off to a slow start putting the streak in jeopardy, but some big wins down the stretch have allowed the team an opportunity to send Coach Chadwick out with a bang in his final season.
“We are definitely peaking at the right time,” said SEC Player of the Year Nik Scholtz. “We started off so slow, but right now I feel like everybody is starting to play better. Usually we are wondering who we are going to be hosting, but this year we almost didn’t even make it. We had to beat Texas A&M here and Tennessee in the SEC Tournament. That was clutch.”
Scholtz led the Rebels all season with a 15-1 record at No. 1 singles on his way to becoming the fourth Rebel to earn SEC Player of the Year honors and the first to be named Freshman of the Year and Player of the Year in his career.
The Rebels are also led by lone senior Johan Backstrom, who owns a 14-5 dual match record in singles and 9-3 in doubles with Joe Rogers.
“Nik provided great leadership not only with his win-loss record, but his attitude in talking about doing everything we can to make the best of the season,” Chadwick said. “Also, Backstrom has done a great job of turning it up whenever we needed it.”
Northwestern comes into the NCAA Championships with a 21-10 overall record. They finished 7-4 in the Big Ten. The Wildcats had their nine-match win streak snapped by Ohio State in the semifinals of the Big Ten Championship. Northwestern is led by 49th-ranked Raleigh Smith, who owns a 13-10 record at No. 1 singles. The first team All-Big Ten selection also teams up with Mihir Kumar for a 10-9 record at No. 1 doubles and a ranking of No. 39.
Last year, 14 of the 16 host sites advanced to the Sweet Sixteen, and Chadwick hopes the Rebels can be one of the upsets this year.
“In 1995 we had to travel to Notre Dame to begin NCAAs, and we ended up playing for the national championship. That NCAAs put us on the map and since then, we haven’t looked back. It’s fitting that this year we are headed back to South Bend for NCAAs. Who knows what will happen, but there is definitely some good karma up there.”
“Hosting or not hosting, we are happy to be in it, it’s a great opportunity,” Scholtz added. “Obviously everyone in the top 16 is good, but we like our draw. All the teams are really good, but we definitely feel like we have a chance if we play like we are capable.”
To follow the Rebels during the NCAA Championships, go to OleMissSports.com and click on the live scoring link in the calendar and also follow men’s tennis on Twitter (@OleMissMTennis), for updates.