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Under Pressure: Blazers tennis gears up for postseason

To say that the VSU men’s tennis team has been a force to be reckoned with this season would be an understatement.

The Blazers are the last unbeaten team in Division II, standing at 14-0 overall and 9-0 in Gulf South Conference play, having captured the GSC regular season crown. The Blazers are also ranked No. 2 in the nation and are currently atop the South Region in the regional rankings.

The Blazers were also named the Division II Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) Team of the Month for March. The Blazers earned the honor after beating five top 10 teams, including the top-ranked team on two separate occasions. The Blazers defeated then-No. 1 Barry on March 5 and defeated current No. 1 Saint Leo on March 24.

However, with all the success and accolades coming the Blazers’ way, longtime head coach John Hansen knows that now the pressure ramps up a notch as the men’s tennis team looks to capture their third national championship.

“You know there’s a target on your back when you get out of the van and you can see that look on other people’s faces that says ‘We’re going to be the one that gets you,’” Hansen said. “That’s just a threat. The key is how do we respond to that threat, and these guys so far have.”

That said, sophomore Lamar Bartley thinks he and his team exude confidence as the postseason looms.

“I think we feel pretty good,” Bartley said. “Obviously, we’ve gained some confidence over the past couple of months. I think we are taking it every match as we can. I actually think last year we felt more pressure than this year. I think we’re all looking forward to going into the tournaments.”

Still, the Blazers know they are in must-win mode the rest of the way, beginning with the GSC Tournament in Montgomery, Alabama. The top-seeded Blazers will start their GSC run when they face No. 8-seed Shorter on April 20 at 3:30 p.m.

The pressure to make it through the GSC tournament unscathed is extremely high, according to Hansen. The top seed in each region earns the right to host the regional round.

Saint Leo currently sits just behind the Blazers in the South Region rankings at No. 2. That means that a Blazers loss, coupled with Saint Leo winning their conference tournament, could give way to Saint Leo taking the top spot.

Still, Hansen believes this year’s group possesses many of the same qualities that his other good teams had.

“I’m not going to say it’s different, but from the good teams that we’ve had, we’ve got this special drive that they all have,” Hansen said. “You can see that in not just the teams that won the Nationals, but also the ones that came up and got into the finals of the conference. There’s just a special gel that the teams had that this team seems to have.”

Additionally, while the Blazers do have some of the top players in Division II, Hansen says that it’s hardly been one player getting the job done. No player has had more than two losses in singles on the season.

“Well, we’ve got Luca Mack, who is the No. 2 player in the country, but we’ve had some heroes,” Hansen said. “We’ve had [Christian] Felline against Barry and Pedro [Cordeiro] in the last match [against West Florida]. [Cordeiro] is the one that clinched it. Pedro has actually claimed several.”

One thing Bartley said has helped with the team’s chemistry has been the team hanging out weekly.

“We go out for dinners and things like that, not to necessarily talk about tennis, but just to hang out with each other,” Bartley said. “It keeps the team morale going and makes sure we are up to date on each other’s lives and things like that. We see each other every day anyways, so we kind of get an idea of how everyone is and what our personalities are.”

Though the postseason will bring on its own challenges, one thing is certain: The Blazers won’t be intimidated by what lies ahead of them thanks in part to their schedule.

“You’re always trying to beat whoever you’re playing,” Hansen said. “That’s our job. Everybody knows what the rankings are. We have that special feeling that when we’re the underdog, you know that you’re in the hunt. All you can ask for is for us to be in the hunt. It doesn’t mean you’re going to win, but everybody in the country is expecting good things out of you.”

Written by Austin Bruce, Sports Editor. Photo courtesy of Bailey Storey, Photo Editor.

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