It was easily the toughest road to a conference championship yet, but men’s Gaucho tennis was able to clinch an unheard of fourth straight Big West title on Sunday, defeating #2 seed UC Irvine in a thrilling 4-2 barnburner held in the sweltering heat of Indian Wells, California. Despite losing big to the Anteaters 6-1 earlier in the season, UCSB remained focused on their game.
“None of the singles matchups were the same, because their lineup has changed so much,” Head Coach Marty Davis said. “Everyone played someone they’d never played before. But we’ve just improved a lot since last time we played them, and that’s the bottom line.”
A big part of that improvement was the dominant tournament performances from the team’s only senior, Max Taylor. Taylor has played in each of the team’s last four Big West tournament appearances, and has yet to lose a single match.
“Max has won every match he’s played, going 9-0,” Davis said. “That’s a record that’ll never be broken. And he’s the one that ended up under the dogpile of happy Gauchos at the end of the tournament. You couldn’t have scripted it any nicer.”
Of his own performance, the modest Taylor cited court conditions for his domination of anything the Big West has thrown at him.
“The courts suit my game, I like playing in the heat,” Taylor said. “And this year, I was especially motivated because it was my last year. I just really wanted to win.”
Just to get a chance to play Irvine on Sunday, UCSB had to go through an even tougher match against top tournament seed Pacific, narrowly clinching the win, 4-3.
“We lost the first set in all six singles matches,” Davis said. “We’ve never come back from a match like this before. But then we started to turn it around by barely winning one set here and another set there.”
According to Davis, it was the first time he had ever seen such a comeback, and possibly the first time it has ever happened in Big West tournament play. With the match tied at 3-3, it all came down to junior Scott Hohenstein at #3 singles.
“I think just practicing real hard up until the tournament helped,” Hohenstein said. “Just getting fired up, knowing I had to play well. I didn’t want to get in long rallies with the guy. My shots were going in and going pretty well, and I think the other guy was getting kind of tired toward the end of the match. It was pretty exciting. In my college career, it definitely is [the best match], no question.”
Davis exalted his standout junior, who dropped only one match in six, playing both singles and doubles.
“Scott’s match yesterday was heroic,” Davis said. “I’ve never been involved in one like that. It was really high quality tennis, and we wouldn’t have had a chance to play today without him.”
Davis’s vote for Big West player of the year, sophomore Alex Konigsfeldt, also had a solid tournament, playing both #1 singles and doubles. His doubles team with junior Josh Finkelstein never lost this weekend, helping UCSB take some of the most important points of the season.
“We stayed really focused,” Konigsfeldt said. “Pacific was really important because we had to win the doubles point. We just wanted it more than Pacific wanted it, and our fitness level was way better, too.”
Konigsfeldt’s doubles partner and #2 singles player Josh Finkelstein summed up the team’s satisfaction with this tournament, which was far different than any of the past three.
“This one feels so much better,” Finkelstein said. “Everyone contributed for this one. It was a total team effort. A lot of people were counting us out, but everyone just stepped up. It was incredible, so this one is a lot more satisfying than previous ones.”
With the win this weekend, the Gauchos earn an automatic bid for the NCAA Tournament, which begins in May. Before that, though, the team will get some well-earned rest this week.
“The NCAAs are next. Right after the awards banquet, we should find who we play. We’re hoping to be a regional #3 seed, but for the time being we’re just going to enjoy this.”