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VOL. 133 | NO. 93 | Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Tigers Face South Alabama in Tennis Friday as NCAA Tournament Begins

Pete Wickham

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Getting to the NCAA Tournament has become no big deal for the University of Memphis tennis squad. Coach Paul Goebel’s Tigers (18-5) will open tournament play for the sixth time in seven years Friday in Starkville, Mississippi, with a first-round match against South Alabama (14-9). That kind of consistency is what new Tigers basketball coach Penny Hardaway and his squad can only dream about, for now.

The trick, however, for an experience-laden Tiger squad is to hang around at least through the weekend to take on top-seed Mississippi State (20-2) or Tennessee Tech (10-11). Certainly it’s the goal of a group of four seniors led by All-AAC performers from Great Britain, Ryan Peniston and Andrew Watson.

After missing the tournament as freshmen, Peniston, Watson, fellow Briton Shakell Manji and German Kai Lemke were handed first-round losses by Mississippi State in 2016 and Oregon last spring.

“They came home from last year’s tournament quite disappointed,” said Goebel, in his 14th year as the U of M coach. “But they dedicated themselves to working hard this past summer. … This group’s leadership is vital for the team.”

Peniston, at 5-11 and 160 pounds soaking wet, doesn’t look the part of a modern-day tennis monster. But he went 15-2 this season as the team’s No. 1 singles player, and is the first Tiger to earn an NCAA individual tournament bid since 1976.

“He’s a very good all-court player … quick, excellent footwork and no weakness,” Goebel said of Peniston, ranked 36th nationally. “There’s also a toughness and fighting spirit to him. He never gets upset.”

Ryan Peniston

One reason? Peniston survived a match with stomach cancer when he was a toddler.

“The tumor was near my stomach and I went through surgery and chemo for a year,” he said. “I don’t remember much of the experience, but now, sometimes when I get down, that memory puts things into perspective.”

He’ll graduate this summer with a degree in international business, then take a shot at the pro tours.

“Before coming over I had only seen American colleges in movies. I had no idea of what it was like, but I’ve loved every second of it,” he said.

Watson, a big hitter who relies on a wipeout forehand, is 17-3 as the team’s No. 2 player. Goebel started pairing his aces up on the doubles side in mid-season. They are 12-7 and got an alternate’s bid to the NCAA doubles draw.

“Ryan’s shot making ability and Andrew’s power present a formidable challenge to an opposing team,” Goebel said. “It’s been fun to watch them forge a partnership this year, improve their skill in that area of the game and be named All-Conference … that’s remarkable.”

While the team is largely made up of European players, there is a local player working his way into the program’s future. Marshall Sullivan, a former state champion at St. George’s, played one year at Tennessee, stepped away from Knoxville, and the game for a year, but has shown promise in limited doubles action (3-3) with Lemke and Peniston.

Marshall Sullivan

“He’s been playing well, though with the experience we have right now it’s tough to get in the lineup on a regular basis,” Goebel said. “He’s aggressive and likes to work off his volley and forehand. We’re hopeful he can develop an all-court game.”

Sullivan said after he left Tennessee, he wasn’t sure he wanted to play any more.

“But I started to hit some by the end of that summer, then I would work out some more and I realized more and more I wanted to play again,” said Sullivan, whose sister Claire is a sophomore on the Tiger women’s team.

“Having experienced players like Ryan and Kai to work with has been a tremendous help,” he said. “It’s been an awesome experience playing this season and to be able to do it in front of family and friends who have been with me through my highs and lows is amazing.”

With so many of his teammates from across the pond, Sullivan figures it can do nothing but help his future travel goals.

“I’ve casually mapped out seven trips to Europe,” he said with a smile.

After a 5-4 start, the Tigers won 13 straight matches before an AAC semifinal loss to South Florida, which went on to its fourth straight league title. Memphis has wins over five of the 64 teams in the NCAA bracket – Oklahoma State, Dartmouth, Harvard, San Diego and league rival Tulane. The Tigers are ranked 20th nationally after reaching a school-best 16th in the polls earlier this season.

Ironically they are the only team without a league tournament title in the Starkville draw. Ninth-ranked Mississippi State (20-2) won the SEC title, led by the No. 2-ranked collegian, junior Nuno Borges of Portugal. South Alabama is the Sun Belt champion, while Tennessee Tech took the OVC title.

Goebel’s first NCAA team in 2013 reached the round of 16, and in 2014 the U of M made it to the second round.

“We have some consistency going and some experience in the NCAA tournament, so I’m excited to see what we can do,” he said. “But there is no easy region in this field.”

The NCAA team semifinals and finals are set for May 21-22, with the singles and doubles competition running from May 23-28, all at Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

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