For the Fresno State men’s tennis team, the 2018-2019 season is a year of redemption.
After losing in the championship round of the 2018 Mountain West (MW) Tournament, the Bulldogs will now have an opportunity to claim the title on their home turf.
Going into the season for the ‘Dogs, the main goal established by head coach Luke Shields was to prepare his team in tournament style play and get it ready to capture a MW Championship.
“The goal of the season was to get our guys ready for the big tournament that we are hosting,” Shields said. “We played three different eight-team tournaments … I think it really got us prepared.”
The Bulldogs’ participation in the Golden State Invite, Pacific Mountain Invitational and the 71st annual Blue Gray National Tennis Classic, one of the most prestigious tennis tournaments in the nation, saw the ‘Dogs face top-40 talent against teams such as Auburn, Princeton and a then No. 16-ranked University of Alabama.
Although the outcome of the Blue Gray Nationals was less than ideal for the Bulldogs — losing 4-1 in all three of their matchups — the experience may have flipped a switch within the team, as it swept both the Golden State and Pacific Mountain Invitationals.
To follow up those tournament victories, the Bulldogs rattled off wins in six of their final nine series matchups.
Combining the amount of time spent on road matchups with traveling to take part in tournaments, the total amount of time spent on the road can be taxing on a team over the course of a season. The Bulldogs had been on the road the previous eight weekends before Senior Day last Saturday.
“We’ve been on the road a lot. It is a lot of up and downs,” Shields said. “It is hard on the body, both emotionally and physically. But I think it either makes you or breaks you, and I talked about that with our guys.”
The Bulldogs were able to spend their final weekend of the regular season at home, posting a 4-1 win over Nevada to complete a series sweep on Senior Day. Subsequently, the win against the Wolf Pack locked up the No. 3 seed in the MW Tournament, pitting the Bulldogs once again against Nevada in the first round.
This will be the first time since 2014 that the Bulldogs will host the MW Tournament at Spalding G. Wathen Tennis Center, and Shields feels the excitement of chasing a championship with home-field advantage on their side.
“Hosting the MW Tournament is awesome. We only get to do it once every eight years,” Shields said. “Our staff has done a really good job … I think our guys are really motivated and we’re looking forward to it.”
Shields knows that this is what his team has been anticipating since the start of the season as the team looks to capitalize on its stellar play of late.
“All year, we have been preaching this moment and visualizing the moment,” Shields said when talking about hosting MW Tournament. “Our guys are really motivated — excited for the opportunity to play in front of their fans. They realize they get this opportunity once every eight years, so they really want to capitalize on it.”
The Bulldogs would love to erase the sour taste of defeat following a 4-1 loss in the 2018 MW Tournament to Utah State, and with the squad the Bulldogs have, they may not have to wait much longer to taste victory.
The chance of an MW Championship going to the Bulldogs seems extremely high, thanks to the play of junior Zdenek Derkas, who has played at a high level all season and may be well on his way to an MW Player of the Year award at the end of the season.
“Derkas is our No. 1 player and is having a great year,” Shields said. “He is the top player in our conference. He should get MW Player of the Year and is playing lights out … and has done a great job.”
Derkas has won 11 of his last 12 matches and has compiled a 23-9 record in singles, is undefeated in conference play going 7-0 and has earned six wins against nationally ranked opponents.
Along with Derkas, the Bulldogs go into the tournament with seven upperclassmen who were part of last years team.
Over spring break, the coaching staff took advantage of the team’s time off from school to tighten up some aspects of the players’ games and prepare for the week ahead.
“We are always striving to improve and just fine tuning all of our skill sets,” Shields said. “We use spring break to focus on our tennis game, and we have been pushing the guys a lot more than ever, and it is really a good opportunity to get guys a lot of reps during competitive practices.”
The time for preparation is almost over as the No. 3-seeded Bulldogs will be competing against No. 6 Nevada in the first round of the MW Tournament at 6 p.m. on Thursday, April 25.