Sander Gille has been an integral part of three championship tennis teams at East Tennessee State, and he can’t imagine seeing the streak die on his watch.
Gille and the Bucs moved to the brink of another Atlantic Sun Conference title Saturday when they blanked South Carolina Upstate 4-0 in the semifinals on their home courts. The top seed will face No. 2 North Florida for the championship today at 10 a.m.
The Ospreys had no trouble earning their spot with a 4-1 victory over Stetson.
The same two schools will also be battling for the women’s crown at 1 o’clock. No. 1 North Florida advanced with a 4-2 victory over Stetson, while ETSU beat Florida Gulf Coast 4-1 on the Milligan College courts.
“We always tell our players to just give themselves a chance to win,” said ETSU coach Yaser Zaatini, “and we’ve given ourselves two tomorrow.”
For Gille, winning as a senior would have a different feel.
The native of Belgium was the A-Sun player of the year as a sophomore and has been first-team all-conference in the two years since. But he knows it means more to walk away with the trophy on the last go-round.
“It would be a relief,” he said. “When I was a sophomore, it was a special year. I was a young guy and just wanted to do my part for the team. Last year it just seemed normal to win it. Now I’m a senior and feel more pressure to get the guys through.
“We can’t let the tradition stop. I don’t want to finish my last college match with a loss at home.”
Gille didn’t get to finish his Saturday duel with Matthias Kidler at No. 2 singles. He had lost the first set 6-3 but was leading 5-3 in the second when the Bucs clinched.
After winning the doubles point, the team got singles victories from Juan Ramirez at No. 3, Rogerio Ribeiro at No. 5 and Roger Ordeig at No. 6.
“The doubles started a little slow, but it was just a matter of guiding the guys and grinding it out,” said Zaatini. “Starting with that point is always key.”
The teams had played here just a week ago, with the Bucs winning 5-2. Gille and fellow senior Jeremy Bonnevalle lost their singles matches in super-tiebreaks.
“They’re always tough,” said Gille of fifth-seeded Upstate, “and one little ball can change the match.”
The Bucs’ attention now turns to North Florida. The teams played a month ago in Jacksonville, and ETSU had to rally for a 4-3 victory.
No other team in the league has gotten that close to the Bucs during their unbeaten run.
“We were pretty fortunate to pull it off,” said Zaatini. “I say fortunate, but it was a great amount of guts by Jeremy and Sander. Jeremy made it 3-all, and Sander ended up winning it for us.
“UNF is a great group of guys who play really hard. We’ll have our hands full with them.”
Said Gille, “Everybody wants to beat us, especially UNF. We won down there 4-3 and really pulled it out at the end. I know they want to play us again.”
The ETSU women may be thinking the same thing. They were beaten 6-1 by North Florida in Jacksonville a month ago.
No one in the league took more than one point off of the Lady Ospreys during the regular season.
“It’s going to be a tough day, but don’t count us out,” said Zaatini. “North Florida is very good. A lot of things will have to go right for us.”
The Lady Bucs took the hard way to the final on Saturday by losing the doubles point against Gulf Coast. They were able to regroup and win four singles matches in straight sets.
Jessica Brumit got it started with a win at No. 6, followed by Guillia Andreazza at No. 2 and Karina Kedzo at No. 4. Marine Wieliczko then clinched the victory at No. 3.
Paula Jaime and Diana Navrostska were leading their matches when play was halted.
“When I looked at the singles matches, I thought we had a good chance,” said Zaatini. “I’m usually in panic mode when we lose the doubles point, but I felt good this time. I’m looking forward to tomorrow.
“With the guys, we have a shot in a clear way, even though the other team is super solid. We’re a little weaker with the girls, but you never know.”
ETSU swept both championships when the tournament was last played in Johnson City, in 2009.