Bears break through to end Sweet 16 drought

Eugene Lau/File
Ranked 20th in the country, senior Pedro Zerbini was Cal’s top singles player this year.

A less thankful coach might have been disappointed with a round of 16 exit at the NCAA Team Championships.

The No. 14 Cal men’s tennis team lost, 4-2, to third-ranked Tennessee in the third round of competition — but for Peter Wright, the results dismissed a crucial doubt that hovered over his squad all year.

“It was a question about where the program is going: ‘Were we going to get to the sweet 16?’” the Bears’ coach said. “We needed to get back there. It was a big challenge but our guys pushed hard.”

Last year, the team finished one spot short of hosting an NCAA Regional and lost to UCLA in the second round on the Bruins’ home court. This spring, the Bears finally broke through — playing at a home Regional for the first time since 2003 and posting their deepest NCAA run since a trip to the quarterfinals that same season.

“It showed we can bounce back from adversity,” Wright said. “Our postseason performance said a lot about the determination of our team.”

Their determination came through strongest in the match that secured the sweet 16 berth. On May 15 at the Hellman Tennis Complex, the Bears upset Fresno State in a second-round dogfight that Wright called “one of the most challenging and exciting matches I’ve seen in the last five years.”
After watching the doubles point slip away, Cal fought back across all six singles courts before sophomore Riki McLachlan launched a three-set comeback to take the match, 4-3, for the Bears.

“Looking back, there were many matches that went our way,” Wright said. “I’m just proud of the way we fought. We never lost a match because we didn’t try. We gave our best every time out.”

It took a while to get there, however.

The squad went four dual matches before ever grasping a single doubles point, but cemented a ranked tandem for the top court in sophomore Christoffer Konigsfeldt and junior Nick Andrews. The No. 23 duo took eight of the team’s 12 doubles point wins this season, even overturning the top-ranked Boris Conkic and John Patrick-Smith when Cal clashed with the Vols.

In singles, the team found a solid lineup by placing senior captain Pedro Zerbini and Bozhidar Katsarov on courts one and six, respectively.

“Our senior leadership was really the core of the team,” Wright said. “Pedro’s always been a spark that gets the team going, and Bo’s an allstar on the court.”

The team will lose Zerbini and Katsarov after this spring, but there’s fresh talent in freshman Ben McLachlan and sophomore transfer Carlos Cueto. Add in the fact that Andrews and Konigsfeldt will both return to the top doubles court, and the team might not suffer the loss of its standout seniors too badly.

If the team continues to progress, then Wright may have more than just a Sweet 16 to get excited about.

Annie Gerlach covers men’s tennis.