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Men's tennis: Competitive bunch sets lofty postseason goals

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UK men's tennis opens play in the SEC Tournament on Friday against either LSU or Vanderbilt. (Steve Harp, UK Athletics) UK men's tennis opens play in the SEC Tournament on Friday against either LSU or Vanderbilt. (Steve Harp, UK Athletics)
It's been since 1992 that the University of Kentucky men's tennis team won the SEC regular season title. While that is a tremendous achievement for this group and the program, this season's regular season championship was just one of many goals set for this team from the onset of the season.

Though the regular season is complete, the real competition begins this weekend in the SEC Tournament  in Starkville, Miss. With these Wildcats, the stiff competition awaiting them on the path to the Tournament Championship is something they look forward to.

"We've only ever won one (SEC Tournament), which is in '92," said Emery. "So it's not like this is just old hat for us going down there, and we can just set it aside. We're going down there to win."

Because of the number of nationally ranked teams in the SEC, for the No. 6 Wildcats (24-4, 11-0 SEC), who enter the as the No. 1 seed and had won't play until Friday with a first round bye, winning the conference tournament would go a long way in ensuring one of the top seeds in the NCAA Tournament.

"If we would go down there and win the tournament," said Emery, "We would be a top-four seed in the NCAAs, and that would be a really big thing. That really does help your draw as you're moving forward in the NCAA Tournament."

But not even an SEC Tournament Championship or a high seed going into the NCAA Tournament will satisfy this bunch. 

Kentucky has their sights set on something bigger, something more illustrious. Something that even their head coach Dennis Emery hasn't spoke about much to the media.

At least not until Wednesday afternoon.

"We want to get to a Sweet 16. We'd love to get to a Final Four," said Emery of his hopes and expectations for the team.

His players, however, are singing a different tune.

"One of our players reminded me the other day that, 'you know, you keep saying our goal is to get to a Final Four. Our goal is to win a national championship. We wish you would tell the media that,' " said Emery.

Emery previously had spoken of getting deep into the NCAA Tournament as a goal that they had set before the season had started, but it in looking forward, his team has been able to focus on each individual step that could lead them to greatness.

"The thing that we've done very well this year, better than any year here I've ever coached," said Emery, "These guys have really taken it one match at a time. It's something, as a coach, you stress. I don't think it's something you pound into your players. We have two very good senior leaders and a junior in Anthony Rossi, and I think they've learned from the past that you don't look ahead. Not in our league, and not in the NCAAs."

A big reason for that, the ability to focus on take each match "one match at a time," is the competitive nature of this group. They have a desire to win, they genuinely love the sport, and the thrill of competing manifests itself in the way this team plays. This starts from the top with seniors Eric Quigley and Alex Musialek, two of the top players in the country, along with Rossi. 

That attitude has seemingly permeated through a group that lives together in an apartment complex. They've all bought in. Though many of the events are individual, each player has adopted a winner's mentality to help take this team to such a high level.

"The thing about this team is, it's the most competitive group I've seen one to six," said Emery. "They all love to win, they all love tennis, and you don't always have that mix of people who love to compete, love to win, and love the game."

Quigley is a player who loves to win. He loves it so much, in fact, that he rarely loses. The Pee Wee Valley, Ky. native has saved his best for last going 45-6 on the season including an undefeated 11-0 in conference play his senior year. Those numbers are good for third overall in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association poll for the second consecutive week.

For his coach, this season has been one of, if not Emery's best, during his tenure at the University of Kentucky. In his 30th year of service at Kentucky, the two-time SEC Coach of the Year and two-time runner-up for NCAA Coach of the Year, is certain to have more accolades coming his way if his team reaches the goals they've set. 

It was evident Wednesday when Emery talked just how excited he was about his team and how much he looked forward to this weekend and beyond. And while there are still, hopefully, many matches to be played this season, he's elated with how this team, after losing two very good players, have matured and exceeded expectations. 

"Our guys have come to play every match," said Emery, "And just from a personal standpoint, it's been very good to see how professional our players have become. We knew we were the best team athletically in the country, we were not sure we were the best team in the country competitively or emotionally. And to this point, we've been right there with anybody."

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