By Joel Weckerly, Sports Editor
Ahead 1-0 in the third set of his Lone Star Conference Championship singles match against Cameron’s Marco Valdez, sophomore Evan Puglia glanced at the balcony of the Oak Tree Country Club to see his teammates gathering by his court.
They had come from the opposite side of the facility, where senior Trent Broach dropped his No. 4 match to Cameron’s Gustavo Blanco, 2-6, 6-4, 6-3. Cameron and ACU were tied at 4-Puglia’s match would decide whether the Wildcats would clinch the LSC title and act as Central Region bi-tournament host May 7-8.
“I knew for sure that Trent had lost, otherwise they would’ve called my match,” Puglia said. “I was like, ‘Oh man.’ I definitely felt like the pressure was on me.”
As if that wasn’t bad enough, when he was up 4-3, Puglia’s left quadriceps muscle began cramping up. He could no longer jump on serves-leaving no zing on the ball-and couldn’t sprint after it on returns.
After Valdez tied the set at 4-4, Puglia sought help from Wildcat tennis coach Hutton Jones.
“I told him I was cramping up and he said, ‘No, you’re not; you’re fine,'” Puglia recalled.
Says Jones, “Basically I told him not to show one gimp in his walk. I didn’t want to give the other guy a reason to start fighting.”
With nothing on his serve and jogging around the court, Puglia managed to win the next game, then the next, to put Valdez away 6-4 and hand the Wildcats an LSC Championship.
“It was the most amazing thing ever,” Puglia said. “All he had to do was make me move. I really thought we were going to lose, but he pretty much self-destructed.”
Jones said he was proud of Puglia’s effort with the pressure on high.
“Evan’s a great competitor,” Jones said. “When it comes to those big matches, Evan’s loving the fight, and the other guy’s too worried about winning or losing.”
The Wildcats’ narrow battle was the result of a poor showing in doubles. ACU, which is normally dominant in doubles, lost two of three. In No. 1 doubles, Cameron’s Ivor Hitrec and Oscar Guerra knocked off ACU freshman Casper Steenkamp and sophomore Jason Ray 8-6, while Valdez and Nathan McCulloch of Cameron bested ACU senior Trent Broach and sophomore Kevin Beedy 8-4 at the No. 3 slot. Only Puglia and freshman George Carstens prevailed in No. 2 doubles, 8-4 over CU’s Alex Furlan and Gustavo Blanco.
“We didn’t know what to expect after being down 2-1,” Puglia said. “I don’t think we’ve ever been down like that in doubles to a D-II team.”
The men’s team will likely act as Central Region Tournament host, even though the official NCAA announcement won’t be made until Wednesday.
The regional tournaments work like this: The top eight teams in each of Division II’s eight regions (the rankings are released weekly by the NCAA) play in the tournament, while the top two teams in each region host a four team bi-regional. The No. 1-ranked team plays the No. 4, 5 and 8 teams, while the No. 2-ranked team plays the No. 3, 6 and 7 teams. The winner of each bi-regional advances to the Division II Championships in Orlando, Fla., May 10-15. In other words, 16 of the original 64 teams qualify.
In the latest Central Region poll ACU was ranked second behind D-II powerhouse Drury, which is ranked fifth nationally. Since then, neither ACU nor Drury has lost any regional matches, and should therefore host each bi-regional.
The women’s team had an easier time cruising to an LSC Championship than the men. ACU knocked off East Central 6-0 in Thursday’s quarterfinal, then spanked Tarleton State 5-0 in the semifinals. On Friday, the Wildcats clinched the title with a 5-0 whooping of defending conference champion Northeastern State. Northeastern had beaten ACU 5-4 in last year’s final.
“We were pretty upset about it when they beat us last year,” said sophomore Colleen Reynolds, who defeated Northeastern’s Holly McKee 6-0, 6-2 in No. 1 singles. “To beat them 5-0 made it a lot sweeter.”
Reynolds and junior Summer Beesley prevailed 8-1 against Northeastern’s McKee and Berit Itschert, the No. 6-ranked doubles squad in the nation.
“That felt pretty good,” Reynolds said. “We went out there aggressive, and if we missed a point we just forgot about it.”
Jones said the womens’ doubles performances were the best he had seen all season.
“Our doubles players finally have the energy levels we need,” Jones said. “Doubles is a different game than singles; you have to be ready coming out of the block. I don’t think we’ve developed that energy until the last two or three weeks.”
The women’s team, too, should earn the right to serve as bi-regional host May 6-7. The Wildcats were ranked No. 1 in the latest Central Region poll and haven’t lost to a regional opponent since.