It isn’t talked about enough, but the midway point of a season often tells the most about a team’s trajectory. It is the point at which the team can look back upon all it has accomplished or failed to accomplish. From there, it is where the team can reevaluate its goals and choose to either respond or roll over.
Cal had a busy few days in La Jolla as the team traveled down early to face No. 21 Oklahoma State on Thursday afternoon and played plenty of tennis after that. From Friday to Sunday, the Bears took part in the historic Pacific Coast Doubles Championships. If this story seems familiar, it’s because the team made the same road trip last season. And that tale ended similarly, too.
Coming into the weekend, Cal seemed extra motivated to get revenge for last year when the Cowboys wrangled the Bears to the tune of 4-2. While Oklahoma State is a formidable foe, Cal wasn’t fully playing up to its capabilities.
“We came out a little bit flat. At the end of the day, we played our best doubles during the Pacific Coast Doubles Tournament,” said Cal director of men’s tennis Peter Wright. “Clearly, we came down here with the goal of putting on a great performance against Oklahoma State and I don’t think we hit that goal. We have some things that we have to work on to be better the next time out.”
The now 5-3 Bears fought valiantly but ultimately fell in surprising fashion. Peter Wright’s squad was subdued earlier than expected, losing 4-1 with the lone point coming from junior Ben Draper’s two-set victory over Etienne Donnet. Draper’s success didn’t end there, however, as he teamed up with senior Bjorn Hoffmann in the doubles tournament.
“It’s definitely slightly different when you have a partner. You’re not just playing for yourself. One of the things that we try to do is stay really positive in doubles, because if you’re being negative on the court, you’re not just bringing yourself down but you’re also bringing your partner down,” Draper said.
Draper and Hoffmann found strength in numbers as they plowed through their competition en route to a semifinals appearance. To put that into perspective, the Bears failed to advance past the quarterfinals in last year’s tournament. So while the loss to the Cowboys was demoralizing, make no mistake that progress was made in La Jolla.
The rest of the team picked it up in the doubles tournament as well, as two other Cal pairs reached the round of 16 and were within striking distance. It was a familiar opponent for sophomore Yuta Kikuchi and junior Jack Molloy as they were defeated by a pair from Oklahoma State in a tough 6-7(5), 7-5, 7-6(5) outcome.
Similarly, sophomore Kent Hunter and junior Thomas Wright dropped their match to a duo from USC.
The Trojans, like the Cowboys, simply had the Bears’ number this time around. In the semifinals, it was none other than USC’s Colter Smith and former Trojan Tanner Smith (who was eligible to play given the tournament’s open status) who narrowly escaped Draper and Hoffmann 6-4, 6-7(5), 13-11. In the end, Cal was a single point away from reaching the finals.
“It’s just continuing to get 5% better each week and work on little things because the margins are so small. One percent difference can make all that difference in a big point,” Draper said.
Draper’s coach is fully behind that message and promises that the team will keep its foot on the gas through its upcoming bye weekend.
“It’s not rest. Right now, we’re really going to be clicking. We’re going to be working hard at practice every day, sharpening our skills with a lot of individual work, a lot of situational work,” Peter Wright said.
It appears that the Bears are choosing to respond rather than roll over. This weekend marked the midway point of the season, but all that means is that there is a second half left to be played — a second half left to further improve.
“As we go into midseason – that was our last match of the first half of the season – now we’ve really got to turn it on. Our goal is to be stronger at the end of the season than we were at the beginning of the season. We’re doing that,” Peter Wright said.
Kabir Rao covers men’s tennis. Contact him at [email protected].