LAFAYETTE — Sometimes it takes an early-season loss to create the evolution of a championship-caliber team. Louisiana-Lafayette men’s tennis coach Mark Jeffrey feels he observed that phenomenon in mid-March after his team dropped a 4-2 home match to George Washington and then showed signs of obvious improvement.
Following that match, the Cajuns won 10 straight, which helped elevate UL-Lafayette to its current No. 62 NCAA ranking, a Sun Belt Conference tournament title and a NCAA regional tournament berth that will be announced today at 4 p.m.
“I feel after that we just got better and better. It really turned the tide. How they reacted from that match was very positive. We did a good job of not letting that match get in the way of the rest of the season and our end goals.
“Now we are playing at a high level and playing our best tennis at the end of the year,” said Jeffrey, whose Cajuns won conference tournament with a 4-3 victory over the University of South Alabama.
It’s the first NCAA postseason appearance for the men’s tennis program since 2006 and the most number of victories since 1998.
The Cajuns, whose 20-4 record is also the highest winning percentage in the school’s tennis history, something that Jeffery thinks has earned No. 3 regional seed. For the NCAA Tournament, the Cajuns are ranked 47th, Jeffrey said.
Jeffrey, who became the UL-Lafayette men’s coach in 2008, said the George Washington match gave his team some added confidence.
“The guys saw that George Washington defeated a very good Tulane team and Tulane defeated South Alabama twice,” said Jeffrey, who discussed the NCAA regionals during Monday’s news conference.
Jeffery said he’s coached other teams with perhaps better talent, but the Cajuns this year have displayed an innate passion to win.
“By far and away this team has that heart and passion that has placed it where it is today. I also feel that this team is very close to being a Sweet 16 team in the NCAA Tournament, and I’m not backing away from that.
“I’m expecting them to go in and do very well against a No. 2 seed and do very well. It’s not like baseball where we go into a super regional after the regional. We go straight from regionals into a national tournament. said Jeffrey.
Jeffrey said like other sports, an NCAA regional title is a won by compressing two victories over a short span of time.
“What you have to do is put two matches together and you win (a regional). What I’ve been telling the team is this is like starting a new season
Jeffrey said the NCAA regional for the Cajuns includes teams from Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. It will also be the first time in 21 years that the region which includes UL-Lafayette, will not host a regional tournament, he said.
Although he admitted he was speculating, Jeffrey said the Cajuns could wind up playing at a regional tournament hosted at either Texas A&M, Baylor, Texas or Florida.
Texas A&M won the regular season Southeastern Conference title and tournament championship, while Baylor won the Big 12 title.
“All three of those teams are ranked in the top 10,” Jeffrey said.
Jeffrey said that Danial Franiola, a junior from Australia, has emerged as the team’s vocal leader. Franiola plays at the number three and four positions.
“He’s the guy who really gets the other guys going in practice and in matches. He’s very, very vocal. If he sees something, he reacts to it and attacks it.
“Franiola is the first guy who sees a problem, addresses it and says that we need to get better at it. He was the guy who clinched both matches for us against UT-Alrington and (in the tournament against South Alabama).
“He lost the first set 6-2 against South Alabama and then came home and won the last two sets 6-2, 6-4. (Franiola) is just a very key guy and an emotional leader. He is the heart of the team and he is the passionate one,” said Jefffrey.