April 17, 2011
By Amanda Pruitt
When senior John-Patrick Smith fell backwards in celebration after delivering the final point in a 4-3 road victory at Georgia on Saturday, the 2011 Tennessee squad finished a job that no other Volunteer tennis team had ever accomplished.
The fourth-ranked Vols (20-3, 10-1 SEC) had captured back-to-back SEC regular-season titles for the first time in program history. They finished the schedule tied with fifth-ranked Georgia, which also finished 10-1 in conference play.
"This is an incredibly hard league to win," said Sam Winterbotham, now in his fifth season as head coach. "For us to be able to do it back to back is just a fantastic accomplishment. We're going to really enjoy that. We're going to savor that moment. I hope the guys take that to heart. The stats tell you, it's hard to do."
The Vols do not have much time to enjoy the regular-season finish, however. After a few days of practice, they depart for Gainesville, Fla., on Wednesday afternoon to begin their bid for back-to-back SEC tournament titles.
The SEC Tournament Awaits
As the No. 1 seed in the SEC Championships, the Vols receive a first-round bye and will play in the quarterfinals Friday at 6 p.m. They face the winner of Thursday's match between Vanderbilt and Mississippi .
"We've got ourselves in great position now -- we've given ourselves the top seed in the SEC Championships," Winterbotham said. "I think we're really excited to try to accomplish the same feat this year by winning the both regular-season and tournament titles."
Tennessee has won three SEC Championships, coming in 1990, 2001 and 2010. The first two titles were won in Knoxville and last season's trophy came at Kentucky.
Last season's title run was nothing short of impressive as Tennessee became the first team in tournament history to shut out all three opponents en route to the title, beating LSU, Mississippi and Florida all by 4-0 scores.
The Vols are 7-3 in Winterbotham's first four appearances in the SEC Tournament. They reached the finals in 2009 before winning the title in 2010.
First Since Track and Field
Tennessee's back-to-back titles are the first for the tennis program, but it has been nearly a decade since a UT men's team in any sport has pulled off league honors in consecutive years. The last team to do so was the outdoor track and field squad, who won the SEC title in 2001 and again in 2002.
Tennessee now has nine SEC titles since 1950. The Vols won the league in 1951, 1966, 1970, 1980, 1986, 1990, 2000, 2010 and 2011. Prior to 1990, the SEC champion was decided by an end-of-season flighted tournament rather than conference standings.
Georgia has won the most titles with 25. Tennessee is tied with Florida for second among current SEC teams. Surprisingly enough, Tulane won 17 conference tennis titles before leaving the SEC in 1966.
Saturday's win against Georgia was the Vols' 20th victory of the season, giving Tennessee four consecutive years of at least 20 dual-match wins. It is the longest streak of at least 20 wins per year since the Vols pulled off the feat six seasons in a row from 1982-1987.
2008: 23-7 (9-2 SEC)
2009: 23-7 (8-3 SEC)
2010: 31-2 (11-0 SEC)
2011: 20-3 (10-1 SEC)
By finishing the season 10-1 in SEC play, the Vols logged their third 10-win conference season since the SEC expanded to 12 members. Last year, Tennessee swept through the conference 11-0 and they went 10-1 in 2000 on their way to the regular-season title and eventually an appearance in the NCAA semifinals.
Nine Wins Apiece
Individually, few teams have enjoyed the success at the top of the lineup as the Vols have this season. Smith and sophomore Rhyne Williams both won nine matches at the 1 and 2 positions in singles, and sophomore Tennys Sandgren went 10-1 on court 3.
In doubles, Williams and Sandgren finished 9-2 on court 2 in their first season as a pairing. Smith, last season's SEC Player of the Year, was 9-2 with eight wins coming with Conkic on court 1 and another with freshman Jarryd Chaplin on court 2.