When the Florida men’s tennis team stepped onto the court for the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, it looked a little younger than its opponents. Where experience trumped all for other teams, talent in the young core prevailed for the Gators.
Of the six positions available in the singles lineup, four of them were filled by underclassmen for most of the season: three freshmen and a sophomore. At a point in the season where experience is seemingly most important, Florida has defied that logic.
Like he’d done all day, junior Alfredo Perez sent a powerful forehand over the net that his …
One reason for this is the immense talent of the Gators’ underclassmen. Florida’s recruiting class in 2017 was ranked second in the nation behind only University of California, Berkeley. Among the new faces was the No. 2 recruit in the nation, Oliver Crawford.
The South Carolina native lived up to the hype with an outstanding spring season that saw a 12-match win streak in singles and a 15-2 record in doubles. It earned him SEC Freshman of the Year honors. Crawford and his doubles partner, senior Chase Perez-Blanco, are currently on a nine-match win streak.
Even though this is his first season, Crawford credits the toughness of the SEC for giving him wisdom early in his career.
“It’s been a good experience to play these top teams in the conference,” Crawford said. “The SEC gets you ready for what is to come.”
Others among the 2017 class are freshmen Duarte Vale and Andy Andrade.
Andrade has been vital for his team down the stretch of the season. The Bradenton, Florida, native has clinched five matches this season and is currently on a five-match win streak heading into the Round of 16 of the NCAA Tournament.
“I’ve been so proud of these young guys,” coach Bryan Shelton said. “In singles, they’ve really stepped up to help the team.”
While Vale struggled in singles play — he has a 5-11 record in dual singles — his strength has been in doubles. Vale and his partner, junior and team captain McClain Kessler, have the second most wins on the team (13) and won their last two doubles matches to help their team advance in the NCAA Tournament.
Johannes Ingildsen, the lone sophomore in the lineup, also shined in doubles. He and his partner, junior Alfredo Perez, are 10-6 on the year and were the No. 1-ranked duo in the nation for five straight weeks during February and March.
Florida will continue to rely on the young core of players to help it advance past Ole Miss in the Round of 16 on May 18. Shelton has emphasized the importance of the fire and spirit these young players bring.
“It’s their energy and their enthusiasm,” Shelton said. “They bring an energy to the court that is special.”
Looking forward, the Gators currently hold the top recruiting class for 2018, which includes two blue-chip prospects in Sam Riffice and Lukas Greif. They will help UF continue to be competitive for the next few years.