Vols have underdog role in SEC men's tennis tournament

Only one player on the current Tennessee men's tennis team experienced what it was like to be in the lineup for one of the most feared teams in the country two years ago.

Ed Jones was a freshman on the team that reached the NCAA championship match in 2010 before losing to Southern California, 4-2.

Jones played No. 3 doubles with Matteo Fago during the run to the title match and teamed with Fago to clinch the doubles point against the Trojans.

"The experience was unbelievable," Jones said. "The confidence we had as a team was just through the roof. It was amazing."

Now, the Vols are playing a different role. No longer the juggernaut, Tennessee enters today's SEC tournament as the No. 6 seed — but ranked No. 16 in the nation.

UT (13-12, 5-6 SEC) plays No. 11 seed Alabama (10-14, 2-8) today in a first-round match in Starkville, Miss. The Vols will look to avenge a 6-1 loss to the Crimson Tide on April 8 in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

"We've got to lay it on the line,' UT coach Sam Winterbotham said. "We've got Alabama. We got a 6-1 drubbing at their place. I think when the guys saw that draw, they were very excited."

UT lost five of its top six singles players from last year when Jones played No. 6 and the Vols reached the NCAA quarterfinals.

While the Vols lost plenty of firepower from that lineup, they replaced it with a fiery group of freshmen at the top three singles spots: Mikelis Libietis, Hunter Reese, and Brandon Fickey.

Sophomore Jarryd Chaplin plays No. 4 singles, with Jones at No. 5. UT has used three players at No. 6: freshman Peter Nagovnak, junior Taylor Patrick and senior Bryan Swartz. Swartz was on the 2009-10 team, but wasn't in the starting lineup.

Jones, who is from Wales, leads the team this season in SEC dual-match victories with a 7-4 record, while Chaplin is 6-5 and Reese is 6-5 (playing Nos. 2 and 3 singles).

Jones said the Vols' youth hasn't changed their goals.

"It's exciting," Jones said. "It's certainly a challenge for the three freshmen at the top of the lineup. I'm sure we're not making excuses (like), 'Oh, we've got a young team, or whatever,' because we want to cause damage now. We want to go into this SEC Tournament and cause some real upsets."

If the Vols win today, they have a chance to pull off an upset Friday in a quarterfinal match against No. 3 seed Mississippi State (18-5, 9-2), which beat host UT 4-3 on March 11.

The Vols don't expect anything to be easy.

"Every match we play we've got to give 100 percent because we're not going to go out and roll teams," Jones said. "We're going to play the good teams very close, but we don't want to settle for that. We want to get the victory at the end, and we have to give 100 percent effort to do that, and we have to have everyone on the same page."

Winterbotham makes the case that if the Vols were playing in the Big Ten Conference, they would be among the favorites to win the league title, at least by comparative national rankings among teams in both leagues.

Instead, the Vols are in the underdogs' role in the SEC — unlike the last couple of years.

"This is a league where if you have a down year, you're going to get your butt kicked," Winterbotham said. "I felt there's been a couple of matches where we under-performed, but outside of that, I thought we played really well, and guys have gotten a lot better. We also believe we are capable of beating anybody in this league.

"The great thing is you only have to get four points. You don't have to get seven. I'm not sure we're capable of getting seven points. There are other teams capable of getting seven points, but we can get four, so we're going to scratch and claw and see if we can pull something out of the hat."

Dave Link is a freelance contributor.

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