John Collins can point to the worst moment of his college tennis life. Friday, he got a candidate for the best moment.
In November 2011, Collins was a junior at the University of Maryland, the state in which he was born and raised. That’s when the word came the school was cutting men’s tennis to save money.
“It sucks,’’ Collins said Friday. “I don’t think my heart has ever hung that low. Ever. It was brutal.’’
Collins quickly shopped for a new home and found one at Tennessee.
“I promised him we would do everything we could for him to have the best senior year he could have,’’ said UT coach Sam Winterbotham.
Winterbotham wasn’t kidding. Clinching a first-round NCAA tournament victory over South Carolina State on Friday at Barksdale Stadium lifted Collins’ heart back up.
His 6-1, 6-0 victory at No. 5 singles closed out the No. 6 Vols’ 4-0 victory.
UT (24-8) faces No. 23 Clemson on Saturday at 1 p.m.
Clemson (19-7) beat No. 42 Boise State 4-3 Friday. Saturday’s winner advances to the Round of 16 in Urbana, Ill.
Collins had won an NCAA tournament doubles match before, his sophomore year at Maryland. But this was his first NCAA singles win.
“It’s very exciting,’’ said a beaming Collins, who also teamed with Ed Jones to clinch the doubles point for the Vols, 8-2 at No. 3. “The whole week we’ve been aching to get back out here.’’
The Vols had been idle since losing to Georgia April 21 in the finals of the SEC tournament. If they were rusty, it didn’t show.
No. 1-ranked Mikelis Libietis raced through a 6-0, 6-3 win at No. 1 singles. Jarryd Chaplin made it 3-0 with a 6-1, 6-2 win at No. 4.
Collins beat Hunter Reese to the clinching moment.
“I just told the other guys,’’ said Chaplin, a junior, “that it feels like John’s been here for four years.
“It’s exciting he got to clinch today because there are only X amount of matches left for him.’’
UT was a natural fit for Collins on several counts.
Winterbotham could relate because he knew the pain of having a program shut down. It happened to him coaching at Colorado.
Within weeks after news of the shutdown, Collins was school shopping, even with a junior season to finish.
He practiced with a couple of Vols and assistant coach Chris Woodruff at a national indoor tournament and was well aware of UT’s strong tennis reputation.
“I’m practicing with coach Woodruff and then two weeks later I’m in his car and he’s showing me around campus,’’ Collins said. “It’s a small world.’’
The visit convinced him Tennessee was the place. He also visited Kentucky and Ohio State.
“Getting him acquainted with the team had no issues,’’ Chaplin said, “because it’s a very caring and supportive team.’’
Collins settled in, playing mostly at No. 5, and has an overall dual match record of 11-6.
“I’m lucky enough to have two homes,’’ Collins said. “I love them both just as much.’’
Added Winterbotham, “John’s a Vol For Life. One year, four years, it doesn’t matter.’’