Eric Quigley is well on his way to becoming one of the most decorated players in Kentucky men's tennis history. After banner seasons as a freshman and sophomore, Quigley has posted 43 singles wins in 2011 en route to a first-team All-Southeastern Conference selection and a No. 6 national ranking.
With Quigley leading the way, the Wildcats have enjoyed one of the most remarkable seasons in Dennis Emery's tenure as coach.
Quigley may be the face of the team, but it has been the depth of this year's squad that has paved the way for a school-record 26 wins and a berth in the NCAA Team Championships.
"While you want to be very good at the top, the core of our team has really been our three, four, five positions this year," Emery said. "Those guys have just done a great job. Not only have they been good in singles, but they've been very, very good in doubles too, which is just as important."
Beginning May 13, 10th overall seed Kentucky will begin its run in the 2011 NCAA Tournament against Cleveland State in the opening round of regional play at the Hillary J. Boone Tennis Complex (should UK win, it could potentially face Louisville in the second round). This marks the third consecutive year that UK has hosted a regional, but it is the contributions of the back of the rotation that could allow the Wildcats to do even more damage this year.
No. 4 and No. 5 singles players Alberto Gonzalez and Anthony Rossi have been highly ranked much of the season, making UK that much more formidable.
"When your guys at four and five have been ranked in the top 100 like Gonzalez and Rossi have been this year, that makes a huge difference," Emery said.
Gonzalez and Rossi are joined by Brad Cox and Tom Jomby at the No. 3 and No. 6 spots, respectively, to form a balanced group.
"I think we are very strong at every spot, one through six," Jomby said. "We have six strong players, and even if two or three guys have a bad day, we know that there are three other good guys and we can win. Especially in doubles, we have three good teams. The fact that we have Eric, (who) is No. 6 in the country, is great because it's good to practice with him. He inspires us to give more."
The Wildcats are also balanced in terms of experience with two seniors, two juniors, a sophomore and a freshman in the rotation, and it's no accident.
"What we're always trying to do is to balance our classes," Emery said. "You're hoping your seniors do a good job of bringing your young players along. I feel like our seniors have done a very good job this year of doing that."
Cox and Gonzalez are the senior leaders, with Cox handling captain responsibilities for a second straight year. Emery called Cox a "natural leader" but said that Gonzalez has had to grow into the role.
"Gonzalez, when he came here, I would not say he was a team-first person or a natural leader and he has really developed into that for us," Emery said.
Gonzalez recognized his need to mature and addressed it.
"My freshman and sophomore year I was really immature when it came to practice, when it came to being on time, when it came to being a leader," Gonzalez said. "In my junior and senior year, I have changed completely. I'm more responsible coming to the courts and I'm a leader of my team."
Gonzalez underwent a transformation and realized that when taking the court, it's as much about the team as it is about any individual.
"I think the important thing is that, with experience, you can lead," Gonzalez said. "You're not playing for yourself, you're playing for your family, which is your team."
Jomby, a freshman, has especially benefitted from the leadership of Cox and Gonzalez. The native of Nantes, France, only arrived in Lexington in January yet has been a meaningful contributor in his first season.
"It's a tough deal coming in January like he did," Emery said. "He came in right at the start of the season and he missed the whole fall, all the preparatory stuff. I think it's important that those guys were able to bring him along. Gonzalez and Cox were able to mentor him."
When SEC awards were announced last week, Jomby became just the third Wildcat in school history to be named to the All-Freshman team, following in the footsteps of Quigley and Rossi. Jomby knows that the seniors have been crucial to his success.
"Before every match they help us to get very pumped because they talk to us in the locker room," Jomby said. "They talk about the strategy and starting strong. Even during the week, when we feel like it's going to be a big match, they help us practice harder. I'm going to miss them next year. Brad is a very good captain. He sends us a text before every early morning practice."
Perhaps Jomby's most memorable moment of the season came in UK's regular season win against Florida, the program's first win in Gainesville, Fla., since 1992. He was in the middle of a decisive match and found himself down a set and facing a 3-0 deficit in the second set, but he responded with the help of his teammates.
"(When UK played Florida in the regular season), Tom (Jomby) clinched the match coming down from a set and I was on the court next to him and I was like 'Tom, come on!' " Gonzalez said. "He lost the first set and he was down 3-0 in the second set and he came back and won that match."
With talented players like Gonzalez playing in the back half of the rotation, rivalry among teammates would seem difficult to avoid. That's simply not the case with this bunch.
"I think one of the strengths of our team is that our guys are not competitive with one another," Emery said. "What you see on some teams is there is jealousy with positions and I think really one of the major strengths of our team is our guys understand their roles. Not only do they understand them, but they actually really enjoy their roles."
The fact that each team member has willing accepted his role has made for a close-knit bunch that has played a number of close matches. UK won five of six games against teams ranked between 11 and 25 and went toe-to-toe with top-10 teams before finally getting over the hump in the SEC semifinal against No. 5 Georgia.
"We are very confident, especially after the SEC (Tournament) and the win against Georgia," Jomby said. "Every time we played a top-10 team, we lost 4-3 and now this time we beat them. Even though we lost in the final (against Florida), we are very confident. I know we can beat every team in the country."
That confidence has been instilled in the team from the very beginning of the season.
"At the beginning of the season we sat down with coach (Emery) and (assistant coach) Cedric (Kauffman) and we said we have the potential to do incredible things," Gonzalez said. "I think a big part of our successful year is everybody believing we can do it. We can go all the way and I think we're starting to believe that."
Emery has been at UK for the better part of three decades and knows to expect the unexpected, but knows that the postseason is what this team has been working for all along.
"I feel like this is definitely one of our better teams and we've fought all year to position ourselves to do well in the postseason," Emery said. "We're really excited to get going and see how things play out. We've won a lot of tough matches on the road, places that we haven't won for a long time. What I like about our team is that we have not only a lot of talent but a lot of character, and hopefully that's going to be reflected in the tournament."