LAFAYETTE — There’s no shortage of irony in the first NCAA tournament appearance in seven years for Louisiana-Lafayette’s men’s tennis team.
Just ask Mark Jeffrey.
The former Mississippi State standout took over the helm of the Ragin’ Cajuns in 2008 and has steadily rebuilt the program, and now his squad will face his alma mater Friday in the opening round of the NCAA’s Austin Regional hosted by Texas.
“I’m super excited about playing Mississippi State in the first round,” said Jeffrey, a former Bulldogs All-American who a quarter-century later remains State’s career leader in singles wins. “We’d hoped to be in the Texas Regional, which is huge for us, and getting to play (MSU) there is an even bigger plus.”
Jeffrey will be matching wits against a familiar face, as Bulldogs coach Per Nilsson was Jeffrey’s teammate on MSU’s 1991 NCAA squad.
“It’s going to be a fun first matchup against a former Bulldog,” Nilsson said. “If I know Mark, I know he’s got his guys prepared after coming off a really good season.”
The Cajuns, 20-4 overall and on a 10-match winning streak, earned their way into the 64-team NCAA bracket by knocking off South Alabama 4-2 in the finals of the Sun Belt Conference Championships at New Orleans’ City Park Tennis Center. It was the first league title for UL-Lafayette since 2006 and the 10th in the program’s history.
“Getting back to this point was huge for our program,” said Jeffrey, whose team took its most wins in a season since 1988 and has the highest winning percentage in program history. “We’ve had some teams the last couple of years that could have done very well in conference and in the NCAAs, but they got sort of burned out. This team’s different ... they’re charging, they’re playing their best tennis at the end of the year.”
The 62nd-ranked Cajuns will need that against the 17th-ranked Bulldogs (18-10) when play begins at 10 a.m. Friday at UT’s Penick-Allison Tennis Center. Host and seventh-ranked Texas, the No. 9 national seed, will meet Marist in the other regional match at 1 p.m. Friday, and the winners will meet at 1 p.m. Saturday for the right to advance to the round of 16 which begins in Athens, Georgia, May 15.
Jeffrey was an NCAA regular during his playing career, and he hasn’t hesitated to relate those experiences to his squad — especially the atmosphere they’ll see if the Cajuns can pull off two regional upsets.
“I’ve played at Wimbledon, played four grand slams, and far and away Athens is the best place I’ve ever played,” he said. “College tennis is magical there on that level. It’s passionate there, and our guys need to mentally prepare and be ready for that.”
They’ll have to get through the Austin gauntlet first, but Jeffrey said winning the league title was a big step. In the finals against perennial power South Alabama, the Cajuns took an easy doubles-point win and then won at the third, fourth and sixth singles positions and were on their way to a win at No. 5 when the match ended.
Australian junior Damian Farinola, whom Jeffrey calls the team’s motivational leader, locked up the league title with his win in the No. 4 match.
“I said all along that this team was close to being a ‘Sweet 16’ team, and I’m not going to back down from that,” Jeffrey said. “We just have to put two matches together, and we think we have a good shot at doing that.”