There may be years where the prospect of having to meet tradition-rich Stanford in the opening round of a NCAA regional would be a cause for trepidation for LSU’s men’s tennis team.
This isn’t one of them.
No. 40 LSU (12-12) is in postseason play for the first time in five years and travels to face No. Stanford (10-5) having earned an at-large berth on the strength of a difficult Southeastern Conference schedule that’s helped prepare the Tigers for anyone on the opposite side of the net.
The Tigers meet the Cardinal at 9 a.m. Saturday at the University of Virginia, the fifth-seeded team that has a 21-2 record and squares off against Farleigh Dickinson (6-4). Second round play is set for Sunday at a time be determined.
“Our conference is the best by far in the country,” LSU co-head coach Andy Brandi said. “The depth, every single match is a grind. We will not see a higher level than we’ve seen, but Stanford is that level. They’re a good as the teams as the top of our league in terms of talent. There are teams around the country ranked around us or even ahead of us that we feel we’re a lot better than. Our schedule didn’t allow us to win as many matches. We feel we’re much better than our ranking.”
LSU dropped three of its last four matches and finished 10th in the SEC regular season. The Tigers made a quick exit in the SEC tournament with a 4-1 loss to Ole Miss.
The SEC, though, had eight teams outside of LSU qualify for the NCAA regionals, seven of which are serving in host roles.
“It was a big moment for us and for the program because we haven’t been doing a lot of winning in the last 5-10 years,” Brandi said. “Things haven’t been great in LSU men’s tennis. The last five years have been kind of rock bottom. We haven’t been one of the top teams in the league and it’s difficult to turn things around because the top teams don’t want to lose their spot. You’ve got to claw and fight and recruit and you’ve got to make some noise to get up in that group and we’re not there yet, but making the tournament is the first step.”
Brandi understands program building and the process it takes to turn teams into champions.
He directed the Florida women’s program to nine overall (indoor and outdoor) NCAA national championships and five runners-up finishes.
He took over the LSU program, along with his son and co-head coach Chris Brandi, in 2017 and two years later had a winning season with a 16-11 record but struggled in SEC play with three wins.
Brandi committed this season to developing a youthful lineup of three true or redshirt freshman with two sophomores and the results, albeit predictable against a rugged conference schedule, that’s exhibited a sense of growth in the program and a bright future.
“It’s been an up and down year, it’s been a struggle,” Brandi said. “This has been the strongest year in SEC tennis that I can ever remember. We didn’t have a good conference record because the league’s tough. There’s a lot of experienced teams. We started four freshmen this year. There are a lot of teams in our league that are playing four seniors. With that comes some volatility in the results. They’re learning a lot of lessons every week and you just hope they make fewer and fewer mistakes as the season goes on.”
LSU went 7-1 in its prelude to conference play, falling only to NCAA regional participant Tulane. The Tigers started 1-5 in league play with losses to No. 16 Kentucky, No. 11 Florida, No. 18 South Carolina, No. 24 Ole Miss and No. 23 Mississippi State.
While the Tigers found navigating the waters against ranked conference opponents to be hazardous, accounting for all eight of their losses, they were able to build some confidence with wins over Arkansas, Auburn and No. 18 Alabama to close the regular season.
“There were a lot of growing pains and every day was not easy,” Brandi said. “That’s why we’re proud of the guys. They had a lot of adversity. We had a guy that left the program in the middle of the year who was playing in the lineup. That was disappointing but not long after that it made this team better. We came together and it gave another guy a chance to play and he’s been great and a sparkplug to the team.”
At the heart of LSU’s bright future is three of its top singles players in redshirt freshman Ronald Hohmann, redshirt sophomore Boris Kozlov and true freshman Benjamin Ambrosio to complement senior Rafael Wagner.
Hohmann (13-13) is the team’s No. 1 singles player and highest ranked player at No. 31, while Wagner, ranked No. 103, has an 11-12 record at No. 2 singles.
Kozlov is 13-11, including 5-4 at No. 3 singles, and Ambrosio is 9-6, including 6-2 at No. 6 singles.
“Boris is out most reliable player, he’s one of the best competitors in college tennis,” Brandi said. “He’s pretty much the heart and soul of our team in terms of being a quiet leader and a guy that comes to practice to compete and in a match, he’s the kind of opponent that guys don’t want to play against.
“Ronnie’s the kind of guy that when he’s playing his best tennis, I don’t think there’s a guy in the league that’s better than him,” Brandi said. “We think he’s a guy that can eventually be a guy that’s the best in the country.”
Hohmann and Wagner are LSU’s No. 1 doubles team and nation’s No. 32 ranked doubles team with a 18-11 overall record, while Kozlov has teamed with Nick Watson of Catholic High for a 14-10 record at No. 3 doubles and Joey Thomas and Joao Garcia are 7-10 at the No. 2 doubles position.
“It may not look like a good draw, but you’ve got play everybody if you’re trying to make a run,” Brandi said. “We’ll just see if we’re good enough or not.”