The stakes are high for USC’s men’s tennis team today, as the Trojans have a chance to clinch the 2014 regular-season Pac-12 conference title and reassert their dominance over crosstown rival UCLA.
The showdown between the No. 3 Trojans (24-2, 6-0) and the No. 5 Bruins (19-2, 6-0) will also serve as USC’s last regular-season home match of the season.
USC has won 15 consecutive matches, with its last loss coming at the hands of UCLA in a 5-2 decision in February. A week prior to that, the Trojans topped the Bruins, 4-3, in the semifinals of the ITA National Team Indoor Tournament. UCLA is also riding high, having won nine straight matches. UCLA’s only other loss on the season was to Baylor, a team USC defeated.
Today, one team will emerge as top dog in the Pac-12 by finishing the conference undefeated and earning the top seed in the Pac-12 Tournament. USC head coach Peter Smith said he is excited for the matchup, but downplayed the importance of earning the No. 1 seed.
“Playing UCLA is like playing your brother — your step-brother — and we want to kick their butt and they’ll want to do the same thing,” Smith said. “I don’t necessarily care that much about the Pac-12 title. It’s more that I want to beat UCLA.”
The crosstown rivalry is always fierce, and a lot of pride is on the line for the Trojans, who fell to the Bruins three out of four times last season. To come out on top this time, Smith said there’s no special strategy other than mental toughness.
“I think it’s just taking care of our internal turmoil,” Smith said. “The doubles point is always important as well as our leadership and we need to go out and just play like men.”
Junior Roberto Quiroz, ranked No. 53 in the nation by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association, will have to play like a man if he wants to continue his 15-match win streak in singles. The Ecuadorian’s only loss in dual-match play this season came at the hands of UCLA’s Mackenzie McDonald, so Quiroz will surely aim to avenge it today.
Senior co-captains Ray Sarmiento and Michael Grant will also have something special to fight for, as they will be playing the last regular-season home matches of their USC careers today.
Smith says emotions always run high on Senior Day, and these two players are particularly special.
“Ray was a huge part of two NCAA championships and is gonna go down as a four-time All American and pound-for-pound just an amazing athlete,” Smith said. “Michael has been a great, calming force on and off the court for the team. They’re our two captains, they’re voted captains. They’ve been voted captains two years in a row so that’s how the team feels about them. They’re just massive parts of this program.”
Grant, ranked No. 120 in the nation, is riding a nine-match win streak after working his way into a starting role for the Trojans this season. He sports a perfect 4-0 record in Pac-12 play this season and an 11-1 mark in dual matches.
Sarmiento enters the match as the No. 9 player in the country after having peaked at No. 3 earlier this season. He and junior Yannick Hanfmann comprise the No. 2 doubles team in the nation.
The match will kick off today at 10:30 a.m. Singles will begin at noon, immediately following the Senior Day ceremonies. The singles portion of the match will be broadcast on the Pac-12 Networks.
Sarmiento has mixed emotions about playing in his last big rivalry match as a Trojan at Marks Stadium.
“It’s bittersweet,” Sarmiento said. “But I mean I’ll definitely miss my coaches, teammates and just being around the team. It’s the Trojan spirit and family that means a lot. Of course I want to end with a ‘W,’ but we’ll leave it all out on the court.”