OXFORD, Miss. – The quest for a national championship begins this weekend for the Ole Miss men’s tennis team as they open up NCAA play at the Palmer/Salloum Tennis Center, hosting the first and second rounds.
The Rebels, seeded No. 6 in the NCAA Championships are hosting the NCAA first and second rounds for the 11th time and second year in a row. They will face Lehigh University in the first round Friday at 3 p.m. BYU and Memphis will meet at Noon in the other first round match. The winners will face off Saturday at 2 p.m. for the right to advance to the Sweet Sixteen in Champaign, Ill.
It’s been nearly three weeks since the Rebels last played a match, but it has given the team a chance to get healthy and be at their best for the NCAAs.
“We needed a rest period, because we had some injuries,” head coach Billy Chadwick said. It came at a real good time, but at the same time, it will be a challenge to get back in there not playing a match for three weeks. The guys have been working hard and they’re ready.”
The Rebels have been led all year by All-Americans Nik Scholtz and Jonas Lutjen. Scholtz, ranked No. 14 in the nation, was hampered at the end of the SEC regular season with an arm injury, but he is finally healthy and ready to get back to his early season form. Lutjen is ranked No. 20 and together they form the No. 3 ranked doubles tandem.
“Nik is healthy and he’s ready to go. He’s really looking good,” Chadwick said. Jonas is playing his best tennis of his career and we’re excited about that. The rest of the guys have put exams behind them and are working hard. We’re going to be in good shape.”
“It definitely helped us,” said Scholtz on the three-week layoff between the SEC Tournament and the NCAA Championships. “We had some injuries including myself and Johan (Backstrom). We were able to take a week off and get our minds straight and then come back with our nose to the grind.”
Lehigh (18-5) captured the Patriot League Championship to earn their first ever NCAA Championship appearance. The Mountain Hawks went 4-2 in Patriot League regular season play to earn the No. 2 seed in the Patriot League Tournament, where they won the first league title in school history with wins over Holy Cross, Bucknell and Navy. They are led by senior co-captain Andrew Krentz.
“We know Memphis well, we played them earlier and it went right down to the wire,” Chadwick said. “They’re actually playing a lot better now, that’s a formidable team. BYU two weeks ago took (No. 11 seed) Pepperdine in the finals of the conference tournament down to a tiebreak in the last match on. With Lehigh, they have a good record. They don’t play the strength of schedule that we do and we hope that our experience in the SEC will be the difference.”
Playing at home in the NCAA Championships has proven to be an advantage. Of the 10 previous occasions the Rebels have hosted the first rounds, they have advanced to the Sweet Sixteen eight times, including last year.
“It’s a big-time advantage,” said Chadwick on hosting. “All you have to do is look at our record at home through the years (143-22 since 2000). It’s a big difference playing at home. You’ll have a couple of upsets, but the home teams do have an advantage.”
Scholtz likes it, but he would prefer if Mother Nature would cooperate and allow the Rebels to play at the Palmer/Salloum Tennis Center. “It’s a huge advantage not only to have the crowd here, but also to play matches on the courts that you practice on every day,” Scholtz said. I really hope we can play outside, because I know people like to come and enjoy tennis in beautiful weather.”
Tickets for the NCAA first and second rounds will be $7 a day or $10 for a weekend pass for adults and $3 a day or $5 for a weekend for students (college students and younger).
It is graduation weekend, and a full slate of commencement ceremonies will be taking place on campus all throughout the day on Saturday, so fans are asked to be mindful of that when parking. The loop around Tad Smith Coliseum will be one way the entire day to facilitate traffic flow for graduation ceremonies taking place in the coliseum.