The Texas men’s and women’s tennis programs approached the 2016 season with expectations you’d consider modest at best. And modest might be too ambitious.
Men’s coach Michael Center was all but starting from scratch, having lost five of his top six players. And Howard Joffe, the first-year women’s coach, couldn’t even see scratch. He had only four total scholarship players in the fall.
This week, though, the two coaches were celebrating their teams’ advances — however unlikely — to the NCAA’s round of 16 in Tulsa, Okla. The men will face Ohio State on Friday morning while the women, after upsetting ninth-ranked Duke on the road, squared off against Pepperdine late Thursday.
Texas is one of only nine schools to have both teams in that sweet 16. If UT can give raises to football assistants off a losing season, both of these coaches deserve big bumps.
These two programs are typical of UT’s Olympic sports, which have dominated the Big 12 with no fewer than eight league championships in both men’s and women’s track and field, and in swimming and diving as well as indoor women’s track, men’s golf, volleyball and rowing. Texas football and baseball may have stumbled badly, but the other sports are kicking butt.
“This is my 25th year,” Center said, “and this is probably the most unlikely season ever.”
When two of his top four players left the program before the year, Center was saddled with constructing a lineup with junior baseliner George Goldhoff as the lone returning starter, and he had played only as high as No. 4 singles. But Adrian Ortiz is an emerging star. Goldhoff became so valuable at No. 1 that it was his emotional victory over Texas A&M’s 18th-ranked Arthur Rinderknech in a dramatic, third-set tie-breaker that punched Texas’ ticket to the next round.
And the emotions poured out.
Taunted with chants of “teasippers” and “go back to your country club” by Aggie fans, Goldhoff ripped off his shirt and threw up the Johnny Manziel money sign.
“I may have over-reacted,” Goldhoff said. “I lost my mind for about 10 seconds. That was the best moment of my competitive tennis. When they say that’s the high you chase for, there’s a very good chance I’ll never repeat that.”
Senior Breaunna Addison is capping off a brilliant career with the women as a two-time Big 12 player of the year with a 34-3 record. Without her, “there’s no chance we make the NCAA Tournament,” Joffe said. Even with her, the Longhorns’ roster is “anorexically thin.”
“When I got the job and through the fall, I would have bet everything in the bank we wouldn’t have made the tournament,” said Joffe, who inherited a program ranked only 41st nationally. “Anyone with a sane mind would have said we had no chance.”
That the men and women were playing at all in late May is a remarkable tribute to their coaches’ ability, the players’ resilience and competitiveness and a refusal to give in to sometimes the most severe adversity.
You want adversity?
For the second straight year, these two teams have practiced without the benefit of a tennis facility, much less a glitzy palace like those at Baylor and Oklahoma State.
Because of construction delays, the programs won’t be moving into their 12-court Taj Mahal of a facility until the fall of 2017. In the meantime, they continue to practice at the dilapidated, wind-ravaged 40 intramural courts on Guadalupe and 51st. Goldhoff said the players jokingly call it the “Guadalupe Correctional Institute” and thought about printing T-shirts as badges of honor. “But we didn’t come here for a facility,” he said.
Joffe goes it one better.
“I call it Guantanamo Bay,” Joffe said. “It’s where they cast away the people they don’t care about.”
If that sounds a bit harsh, it’s no more than the conditions the teams practice in. Of the 40 courts, only about 20 are really playable. The original architect never lay a proper foundation there, instead using gravel underneath the surfaces, which makes resurfacing them impossible.
What that environment did do was instill a work ethic and an iron-fisted discipline that helped them overcome all obstacles.
“We’re a rag-tag team,” Goldhoff said. “We don’t have any All-Americans, just strong individuals finding a way to win. If you’re not getting rings and winning championships at Texas, it’s a bad year. That’s the expectation every year.”