With postseason play set to begin in five days, the Florida men’s tennis team still has one more order of business before its regular season concludes this weekend.
Facing Kentucky at 5 p.m. and Tennessee on Sunday at 1 p.m., a victory in either of those final two contests would lock up a double bye and the No. 2 seed for UF in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, which begins April 20 in Columbia, South Carolina.
Winning the SEC Tournament has been a major goal for No. 13 Florida (13-6, 8-2 SEC) since day one of the regular season. With the tournament’s first serve now less than a week away, anticipation is high for the Gators’ chances of bringing home a conference title for the first time since 2011.
“We’re all definitely pretty excited,” sophomore Chase Perez-Blanco said. “We want to go in there and do the best we can. I think we’re trying to go in there too and also get two revenge wins. I know the guys would love to play Texas A&M again and Georgia.”
But before Perez-Blanco and his teammates can begin their preparation for the postseason, UF is focused on this weekend’s matches against the No. 20 Wildcats and the unranked Volunteers.
Kentucky (17-7, 6-4 SEC) presents a formidable opponent for Florida, featuring two singles players ranked in the nation’s top 40. Sophomore William Bushamuka is ranked No. 31 in the country and is 13-7 in singles play this spring, while freshman Ryotaro Matsumura is ranked No. 35 and is 18-4 in singles play this spring.
In contrast, Tennessee (11-14, 0-10 SEC) currently finds itself at the bottom of the conference standings and has struggled all year. One bright spot for the Volunteers has been the doubles pair of sophomore Luis Valero and junior Jack Schipanski, which is ranked No. 22 in the nation and is 11-4 this spring in doubles competition.
“We have respect for both (programs),” head coach Bryan Shelton said. “… In this league, we know that every single match is tough. We really haven’t had a single match, maybe a couple of scores that reflected it and looked easy, but nothing’s been easy.”
The Gators are expected to once again be without freshman McClain Kessler as he continues to recover from a hip injury he suffered on April 6 against Virginia. Sophomore Jordan Belga played in place of Kessler in Florida’s last match against South Carolina, winning his singles bout 4-6, 6-4, 6-0.
“I was impressed that he was able to come in and handle some of that pressure well and play with good energy, which he really did,” Shelton said. “He was vocal out there on the court in a positive way, and it was great to see him finish with such a flurry of great shots.”
While it is unlikely, UF also still has an opportunity to finish the schedule with a share of the SEC regular-season crown. The Gators are two matches behind Georgia with two contests left for both teams.
If the Bulldogs, who are undefeated in conference play this spring, were to lose to Arkansas on Friday and Ole Miss on Sunday, the door would be open for Florida to tie Georgia with victories over Kentucky and Tennessee this weekend.
Chase Perez-Blanco returns a ball during Florida's win against Troy on Jan. 17, 2016, at the Ring Tennis Complex.