The history of success for Columbus State (Ga.) men’s tennis program made it clear the Cougars were likely to reach the Southeast Regional Tournament in the NCAA Division II Men’s Tennis Championships.
After all, Columbus State advanced to nationals in 2014 and reached the semifinals in 2010 and 2011.
Columbus State, though, had added incentive to do well in the regular season, win the tough Peach Belt Conference Tournament, try to get the No. 1 seed in the Southeast Region, and be a host team for the postseason.
Before the season started, Columbus State opened a new, off-campus tennis facility, which coach Evan Isaacs calls state of the art.
“It has to be one of the best Division II facilities in the country,” Isaacs said. “For us to be able to open that up this year and then back it up with a conference title really makes the city and the community of Columbus feel good about what they did to help us out to build this facility.”
The players definitely enjoy playing at the John W. Walden CSU Tennis Complex.
“It is amazing and just everything we have there is really helpful for us as players,” said sophomore KP Pannu. “It makes practicing and playing there much more exciting.”
The technology in the facility will enable matches on all six courts to be streamed live when the competition starts 2 p.m. ET Friday with No. 8 Queens (N.C.) taking on No. 9 Barton College (N.C.).
Columbus State, 21-3, will face the winner of that match at 9 a.m. Saturday. In the other match, No. 4 North Georgia will take on No. 5 Flagler (Fla.) at 2 p.m. The winners of Saturday matches will face each other 1 p.m. Sunday to be one of 16 teams that reach nationals, which will be held May 9-13 at Sanlando Park in Altamonte Springs, Fla., a suburb of Orlando.
“We definitely will be watching on Friday just because it is an unfamiliar team for us,” Isaacs said. “We haven’t played either one of those teams this year. We need to get an idea of them.
“We are going to be streaming it live on all six courts so everybody can see it. We are able to send that footage to our players and maybe that night they can start getting a game plan together for themselves.”
The Cougars have shown they are prepared for tough competition. Going 9-1 in the Peach Belt Conference, knocking off Flagler (5-1 in the semifinals of the conference tournament), and then fourth-ranked Armstrong State (in the championship match) proves that.
“Out of the eight teams that made the conference tournament, we had seven teams ranked in the ITA top 50,” Isaacs said. “If you tell somebody you have seven teams in your conference ranked in the top 50, it is pretty mind-boggling the success we have had this year.”
Pannu is one of the reasons Columbus State is having such a successful season. He is 15-5 at No. 1 singles. He has teamed up with three different players in doubles and has an 18-4 record.
“KP is the man,” Isaacs said. “He is a guy that typically starts out a little slow in the beginning. In February, he is trying to find his game. When he gets the mindset that he wants to win and contribute to the team, he has proven time and time again to step up and beat the top players.”
Pannu showed his ability to beat the best in the country when he defeated Armstrong State’s Luca Cerin — ranked eighth in the country (6-4, 6-0) — in the Peach Belt Tournament.
“I thoroughly enjoy it,” Pannu said of playing tough competition. “It always brings a challenge to me, which I like. It brings out the best in my game. It is always a good time for me when I have a tough opponent.”
Pannu said he enjoys the team aspect of collegiate tennis.
“Usually tennis is an individual sport, but playing with the boys around you, who have been working hard with you, makes it much more special and motivating to do well,” Pannu said.
Each season, Isaacs wants his team to build a strong bond. He figures it will not only serve the players well now on the tennis court but later on in life.
“One of the things we try to cultivate as a coaching staff is identifying leaders,” Isaacs said. “We don’t name a captain, but we try to identify some leaders to build confidence within and have it permeate down the line. If we can get every guy, one through eight, working for each other, then that, win or lose, is a success to me.
“I also want them to think outside the little Columbus State bubble. I want everything they do while they are here to be working towards the future so they are successful in their life. And when I retire and come visit them, I can know that I had a small part in their success in life. For me, that is what coaching here is all about.”
For now, the Cougars are only thinking about doing well in the Southeast Regional and hopefully, advance to nationals and do well there.
“As an athlete on the tennis team, we have the goal of winning a national championship, which hasn’t happened here,” Pannu said. “That would make it even more special.”
Defending champions Hawaii Pacific can focus on Nationals
Hawaii Pacific, which beat Saint Leo 5-3 last year for the national championship and was national runner-up in 2015 and 2014, can turn its attention to nationals.
By earning the top seed in the West Region, Hawaii Pacific gets a bye to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Division II Men’s Tennis Championships.
The Sharks top player is lefty junior Filip Dolezel, who is 12-3 in No. 1 singles and 14-4 in No. 1 doubles.
West Florida, 2014 national champions, is another team to watch
West Florida is another team that has already earned a spot in the Sweet 16 based on a very successful regular season.
The Argonauts went 26-1 and won a conference record 13th straight Gulf South Conference Tournament title, beating Valdosta State 5-0 in the championship match.
On the season, West Florida defeated eight top 25 teams, including one stretch in which it beat Hawaii Pacific 5-4, gave Barry University its only loss on the season with a 5-4 win and concluded the three-day stretch with a 5-0 victory over Armstrong State.
The only team to beat West Florida was Georgia Gwinnett (NAIA), which squeaked out a 5-4 win.
The top player for West Florida is senior Alex Peyrot who is 11-3 at No. 1 singles and 15-4 overall in singles. Peyrot is also 21-2 in No. 1 doubles. Peyrot teams up with senior Pedro Dumont as the No. 1 doubles team in Division II.