Walking into our senior campaign, we were coming off back-to-back undefeated Ivy League seasons and a pair of NCAA Sweet 16 appearances.
But everyone had been talking about how the 2015-16 season for the Columbia Lions would be a rebuilding year. And after losing key components of those teams like Winston Lin, Max Schnur, Dragos Ignat, Eric Jacobs, Ashok Narayana, and Bert Vancura, there were many holes to fill.
To be honest, we really did not know what to expect. We agreed that our top priority was to continue the culture that had been established in years past, regardless of our results. We still did the 7 a.m. runs, the grueling practices, the meetings—all to make sure the culture stayed the same.
Fast forward to Jan. 23. Columbia is hosting one of 16 Regionals during the ITA Kick-Off Weekend. Four teams make it to the site, with the winner at each site advancing to the 2016 ITA Men’s Team Indoor Championship—the second most prestigious college tennis event, after the NCAA tournament.
Every team wanted to come play us. After all, we were only hosting because of the accomplishments of the previous year, and, without much of the same team, we seemed to be an easy opponent.
We found out that we would be playing Minnesota on Saturday, Jan. 23, and the winner of Stanford and Virginia Tech the next day. We knew it would be a difficult feat to win both matches, but as leaders we had to try to convince the team that we were ready to go.
These teams came all the way to New York to play in our bubble, probably one of the toughest places to play in the country. But we woke up Saturday morning with news that our bubble had to be deflated due to Winter Storm Jonas, and with the matches moved to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, our “home court” advantage was all but gone.
Our coaches Bid Goswami and Howard Endelman then stepped in and reiterated to us that what had made us so great in years past was our ability to deal with adversity. We had gone two straight years qualifying for the Sweet 16 while in the midst of final exams. Some guys on the team would be up at all hours studying, only to wake up and play against two of the toughest SEC schools (Vanderbilt and Ole Miss), and still, we found a way to win.
The day we played Minnesota on Feb. 21, we repeated what our coaches told us about approaching adversity, and the reminder paid off. We came away with a 4-0 win against Minnesota, leaving only Stanford in the way of our qualification.
While Minnesota was certainly a good team, Stanford was a whole different challenge. Their program has won 17 NCAA titles, and many former world No. 1’s, including John McEnroe and the Bryan brothers, have worn the Cardinal name on their backs.
Despite the hard work we had put in leading up to this match, it was tough—even as seasoned veterans—to believe we could win. Our new No. 1 player, Shawn Hadavi, had been No. 10 in our lineup not so long ago. We had first-years competing in the No. 2 and No. 6 spots, and both of us were playing higher up in the ladder than years prior. But by midday on Sunday, we found ourselves in a dogfight, with first-year Victor Pham leading 4-1 in the third set and a ticket to the National Indoor Tournament on the horizon.
Our excitement quickly turned to nerves when he began to cramp to the point where he could barely walk. Luckily, Victor somehow gutted out a 7-6 win in the third-set win to give us a huge upset victory and a trip to Virginia.
The next couple of months were not so easy. We had gone from a team with no expectations to one with a huge target on its back. Sure enough, we went 0-3 in Charlottesville, despite playing close matches against some of the top competition in the country.
And things did not get any easier in the following couple of weeks, as we struggled during our spring break trip. We hit a season low after a crushing defeat against the second-ranked team in the country, TCU. As seniors, we were furious about the loss, having entered the match believing that this was a great chance for us to get back to our winning ways. The Ivy season was only a week away, but we knew that this difficult stretch could teach the team a lesson.
We landed in Newark at 1 a.m. the day after losing to TCU, but we didn’t head to sleep. Instead, we notified the team there was a meeting in four hours in the basement of Mike’s apartment complex. And at 5 a.m., we sat in front of a frustrated and tired team, asking everyone why they thought we were having the meeting. There was a mix of answers, but we finally we explained: “We need to do things we don’t want to do in order to reach our goals.”
In hindsight we agree it seems like a ridiculous meeting, but it sparked the fire we had displayed during the Stanford win. The next week of practice was incredible, with everyone putting in the extra effort, and it started to show, beginning with our opening Ivy match against Cornell.
That competitive spirit and sense of urgency stuck throughout Ivy play. We overcame deficits against both Dartmouth and Harvard the following weekend and continued to have tough matches the rest of the way. But we continued to win, culminating with our third straight Ivy League title last Sunday.
Looking back on this season, we sometimes laugh and joke about how we accomplished the seemingly impossible task of winning another Ivy League title.
We now realize that we never really lost those guys who left. They had instilled a culture and sense of family that remains part of Columbia tennis, and we won’t forget waking up to texts congratulating us the next day from former teammates—like Winston, who was following us from a pro tournament in Greece, and Max, who is currently playing in China.
The reason the program has been able to succeed and will continue to succeed is because Columbia tennis plays for more than just the guys on the court, but the entire family that has represented the team before us.
And now we sit here with another Ivy League crown at No. 24 in the country, waiting to see where we’ll play in the NCAA Tournament.
Not too bad for a rebuilding year.
The authors were named co-captains of the 2015-16 Columbia men’s tennis team. The 2015 squad advanced to the Sweet 16 and won an Ivy League title for the second-straight year, but graduated what some referred to as the Greatest Generation in Columbia’s storied program.
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