Before Tennessee closes the season with the sixth-ranked Georgia Bulldogs on Saturday, April 17, the Volunteers will host a weekend series with their conference counterparts from Mississippi.
On Friday, Tennessee will host the No. 16 Ole Miss Rebels, before closing the weekend with a Sunday match against the No. 47 Mississippi State Bulldogs.
“It seems that everybody in the SEC is an elite team,” head coach Sam Winterbotham said. “Everybody’s got a story, a history to their program. Mississippi State was national semifinalists (in 1994 and 1998). They’re a great team, they’ve got a very good coaching staff. Their players are very good, so we just treat it as ‘OK, this is what’s coming up.’
“We know the SEC is incredibly strong, the strongest conference in the country. If you don’t prepare for each match like it’s the most important thing you’ve got going at that time, you’re going to slip on the bananas again. We’ve been very careful with our footing so far.”
Both teams feature a pair of players currently within the top 125 singles players, according to the International Tennis Federation’s weekly rankings.
Marcel Theimann (68) and Tucker Vorster (75) will likely play the top positions for the Rebels, while Louis Cant (67) and George Coupland (125) will square up for the Bulldogs.
The Rebels have been ranked as high as No. 11 this season as a team.
“They’re an elite program, an elite team,” Winterbotham said. “Whether you have an old face or a new face, we know that when they represent Ole Miss they’re going to be playing at a very high level. We’re not too worried about any one individual. We’re just focused on getting our players ready to play their best. If we do that week-in, week-out we’ll be good against any team we face.”
The Volunteers may have to survive the weekend short-handed, as senior Matt Brewer has been considered questionable after suffering an ankle sprain in a match against Arkansas on Sunday.
“Matt’s day-to-day,” Winterbotham said. “He had a slight ankle sprain and we’re going to see. He’s a tough guy, so if he’s able to go he’ll go.”
Despite the possibility of a setback, Winterbotham proved he’s not one to make excuses for his team. A small hint towards a fellow Tennessee coach expressed his philosophy of shoe-filling for his program.
“It’s a team sport, so if somebody’s out it just gives an opportunity to somebody else to step up and take advantage of it,” Winterbotham said. “Bruce (Pearl) was talking about his team and how it needed other guys who had to be ready when opportunity rises. I remember hearing and reading that from Bruce and it’s the same thing we’re preaching to our guys. We have a big squad, 12, 13 guys; only six get to play singles so those guys that are playing just have to be ready.”
If Brewer is inactive this weekend, it won’t be the worst roster shakeup the Volunteers have weathered this season. Tennessee suffered a pair of injuries in February that still resulted in a 6-1 home win against the Fighting Illini of Illinois.
“Early in the year we had some issues,” Winterbotham said. “We played Illinois with two men out and other guys came in and stepped up. If that’s the case going forward, we’re very confident that the guys that step in are going to be ready.”
The weekend series will nearly close out the Volunteers’ remaining home schedule, which only features one more home match following Sunday.
That remaining match, against the No. 6 Georgia Bulldogs on April 17th, could be a matchup of the conference’s top-two teams when the occasion arrives.
“It’s always great to be home,” Winterbotham said. “We have great support, great fans. K-Town is a special place and we love playing in front of our fans here.”