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USC an appropriate next step on UK's storybook tourney run

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Tom Jomby clinched UK's bid to the national quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament with a thrilling third-set victory against Florida on Thursday. Tom Jomby clinched UK's bid to the national quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament with a thrilling third-set victory against Florida on Thursday.
Rewind to May 21, 2010. A successful season by Kentucky men's tennis was ended in the Sweet 16 by a 4-0 loss to defending and eventual national champion Southern California. UK head coach Dennis Emery called the Trojans "a little too good for us."

Now, back to the present day. The Wildcats have enjoyed an even more successful follow-up campaign, reaching the quarterfinals of the NCAA Championships for just the fourth time in school history with a 4-2 win over No. 7 Florida on Thursday in Stanford, Calif.

In the wake last year's loss to USC, Emery foretold of his team's success this season.

"What we'd like to think is that this match isn't the end of a season, but the beginning of a great run next year," Emery said at the time. "We're returning our top five players who played today. They will be a year older. While certainly we're all smart enough to understand you need to take advantage of these situations when you have them, the positive is we're in a good position (next year) with a very talented group returning that really cares about each other a lot."

How fitting is it then that, one year to the day after UK's 2010 season ended at the hands of the Trojans, the Wildcats will face off against USC with a chance to take a special 2011 season to the next level?

"Yes (it is fitting)," Emery said. "While we would like to play the No. 2 team in the country in a later round, this is what it is. For us to win a national championship and for us to break through and go to the Final Four, we're going to have to beat the best teams."

The challenge that the two-time defending national champion Trojans will present is a momentous one, but these Wildcats are up for it. UK has notched two wins over top-10 teams already this season en route to a school-record 29 wins. Along the way, a deep group has made for some stirring comebacks and heart-pounding finishes.

In this week's win over Florida, a victory that avenged an Southeastern Conference championship loss to the Gators, the Wildcats overcame a loss by No. 1 singles star Eric Quigley with wins by each member of the bottom half of the rotation. No. 6 singles player Tom Jomby punctuated the afternoon, coming back after losing the opening set without winning a game to clinch the match for UK.

The Nantes, France, native has struggled when losing opening sets during his freshman season, but the Sweet 16 was the second time Jomby has come back from such a deficit to clinch a match against Florida.

To a man, these Wildcats refer to their team as a "family" above all else. Jomby is by far the newest member of that family, having arrived at UK in January of this year, but fellow France natives Anthony Rossi, Alex Musialek and assistant coach Cedric Kauffman have helped ease the integration process for him and pave the way for his big wins against Florida.

"The other French guys on the team have really tried to mentor him and bring him along through the year," Emery said. "They've helped him learn how important it is to not go away in those matches emotionally and our guys have done a really good job of that."

That sort of team-first attitude really typifies what UK has been about all year. Tennis at the college level is truly a team sport: no single player can win or lose any given match. The fact that the Wildcats have so willingly embraced that concept helps explain, in large part, why the Wildcats are where they are.

"We feel like we're a really talented team, but the best part about our team is our intangibles," Emery said. "Our guys take a lot of pride and ownership of the program. We're constantly trying to stress to them that it's their program and I think they really take that to heart."

Throughout this 2011 season, it has been impossible to predict which of these Wildcats would step up on any given day. Jomby, Anthony Rossi and Alberto Gonzalez led the way against Florida, but it was Alex Musialek that won the clincher against Louisville to advance to the Sweet 16. Quigley has had his share of his big moments and is currently ranked sixth in the nation, while Brad Cox has been the man at times in his senior season.

"This year, I think I clinched two matches," Gonzalez said. "Alex clinched a few. Tom clinched a few. It's more of a team dynamic this year. I'm just really happy that everybody's contributing and we're doing really well."

Perhaps the best thing that can be said about these Wildcats is that they don't mind sharing success.

"It just shows you the character of the team," Gonzalez said. "We love each other so much that we don't want to lose."

For a team that has already played 37 matches this season, it would seem more likely that UK would be fading late in the season instead of playing its best tennis. However, that collective team-first mentality has made this unit strong.

"When you get to the end of the season, what you see a lot of times is that teams kind of fall apart because they don't get along and they don't care enough about each other," Emery said. "Our guys have been just the opposite."

On the strength of that approach, the Wildcats have broken records and helped Emery accomplish goals he hasn't reached in his nearly three decades in Lexington. Even so, the journey is far from over.

"We're really happy but at the same time, we understand that we have a tough match on Saturday," Gonzalez said. "We are not satisfied yet. We're going to try to go all the way."

A matchup with USC (24-2) awaits on Saturday at 3 p.m. ET at the Taube Tennis Center. Although UK failed to score a point in last season's Sweet 16 tussle with the Trojans, the Wildcats have reason to be confident.

"We felt like we played a really close match with them last year," Emery said. "We lost 4-0, but we were either up or even on the other three courts and we felt like we would have won those three matches. The score did not really reflect where we were at."

USC's top singles player from last year, Robert Farah, has since gone on to the professional ranks, so UK will no longer have to contend with him. Additionally, last year's match was moved indoors due to inclement weather, which benefited the big hitters of Southern Cal.

Playing the match outside will allow UK to capitalize on the Wildcats' athleticism, an advantage the Trojans will counter with experience and precision.

"I feel like we are more talented athletically than Southern Cal," Emery said. "The tradeoff is that they have more experience and they have, in some cases, better tennis skills because of that experience."

USC is an extremely talented team and it will take a remarkable effort by the Wildcats to pull off the upset of one of the dominant programs in college tennis. This time around, though, the Wildcats won't be in awe of their opponent.

"To be honest, we came into the match last year with too much respect for them," Gonzalez said. "I think this year we believe more. We believe we can go all the way. I think we are better mentally and I think we are physically ready."

If UK can play its game, a close match could be in order, which is precisely what Emery and his Cats are looking for.

"The confidence and intensity that they bring to the table, are we going to be able to match that early and make it a close match?" Emery said. "If we can keep it close at the end, we feel like our athletic ability can take over."

No matter what happens, the Wildcats look forward to seeing how they stack up with such a high level of competition.

"We're excited to play Southern Cal," Emery said. "They and Virginia have clearly been the dominant teams in the country the last two years. We feel like we're a better team this year than last year and we're excited to play the match and see how it plays out."

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1 Comment

It should be a great match. I loved your article. Very well executed, blow by blow, point by counter point. I am very familiar with the USC team, They are also very close knit. The Euro influence and Emilio Gomez from Ecuador add a great international flavor to our NCAA tourney. The trojan 4 & 5 position are als strong with freshmen Gomez at 5, and Ray Sarmiento at 4 will battle til the end... Good Luck Wildcats,,,,,Fight ON! Trojans.

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  • trojanelli: It should be a great match. I loved your article. Very well executed, blow by blow, point by counter point. read more