The East Tennessee State men’s tennis team always wears the big target this time of year. That comes with winning six straight Atlantic Sun Conference tournament championships.
The Bucs may still be the favorite this week, but they aren’t the top-seeded team as the A-Sun gets under way. That distinction goes to North Florida, which handed the Bucs their only defeat during the regular season.
On the women’s side, ETSU is also a marked team. The Lady Bucs breezed through the conference schedule unbeaten, and basically unchallenged. No one took more than two points off them.
For Yaser Zaatini, ETSU’s director of tennis, every match this weekend is a potential pitfall. He’s never comfortable with the postseason expectations, even though his men’s team has ruled the A-Sun.
“This is what we work all year for,” Zaatini said Thursday, “and we’re going to have to play well to keep it going. It’s more about tradition and a sense of not wanting to let something go. Nobody wants to let that tradition down.”
The action begins today with first-round matches — two men’s, at the Bristol Racquet Club, and two women’s, at Bristol Country Club. The matches were moved indoors due to the threat of rain.
The tournament moves to the Bucs’ new home — the ETSU Tennis Center — for Saturday’s semifinals and Sunday’s championship round, , depending on weather.
The Bucs (11-6, 7-1) head into the weekend on a roll, with five straight shutouts to end the regular season. They earned a first-round bye and will face the Stetson-Lipscomb winner Saturday at 5 p.m.
Senior Jesus Bandres says the Bucs are keenly aware of their tournament win streak. They haven’t lost since 2006, when Belmont knocked them out in the semifinals.
“Everybody wants to beat us,” said Bandres, who plays No. 1 singles. “We’ve won six in a row, and we’re looking to play our best and get our seventh.”
Bandres, the 2012 tournament MVP, was again named to the all-conference first team Thursday, along with teammate Rogerio Robeiro, a sophomore.
The Bucs aren’t taking anything for granted this weekend, especially in light of the 4-3 loss to North Florida on March 22 that officially opened their new complex.
“I think it was definitely a wake-up call, showing us that we have to be alert that any team can beat us if we don’t play well,” said Bandres. “I’d like to play them again. I’d like to beat them here.”
The Ospreys (14-7, 8-0) will first face the winner of the Florida Gulf Coast-USC Upstate match Saturday at 2:30. The men’s final is set for Sunday at 1, following the women’s match at 10 a.m.
The Lady Bucs (13-5, 8-0) will be shooting for their third title in five years. They’ll have to beat the Stetson-Florida Gulf Coast winner in a Saturday morning semifinal to earn the opportunity.
North Florida (14-4, 7-1) is the tournament’s 2-seed.
The Lady Bucs have now produced three unbeaten seasons in the Atlantic Sun, and this one was delivered by a fairly unproven roster. The only player in the singles lineup to compete in last year’s tournament was junior Guilia Andreazza.
The Lady Bucs have gotten a big lift from Lyn Yee Choo, the league’s freshman of the year and scholar-athlete of the year in women’s tennis. Zaatini also gives a lot of credit to Antonia Kolovou, a transfer from Greece who plays No. 1 singles. She is the team’s lone senior.
“Antonia has been a leader all year,” said Zaatini. “She’s like a street fighter; she puts a little fear in you. She’s relentless.”
Kolovou, Choo and Andreazza were all named to the all-conference first team announced Thursday.
With a little good weather a little luck, Zaatini will be celebrating in his new tennis home late Sunday afternoon. He hopes some of the local tennis fans will come out and enjoy the scene, too.
“This place is just beautiful,” he said as he watched his women’s team go through a practice Thursday morning. “You’re sitting up here on top and you see the hills … there’s a real ambience. It’s a perfect setup, just majestic.”