May 12, 2010
BY DREW EDWARDS
KNOXVILLE -- For Boris Conkic, picking his favorite moment is easy. It even has a soundtrack.
After the Vols' tennis team defeated Georgia 6-1 in April to clinch an undefeated regular season in SEC play and its first regular season conference title since 2000, Conkic cued up `Satisfaction' by Benny Benassi.
The song features a pair of computerized voices chanting the word `satisfaction,' over a house beat. It's not exactly `We Are the Champions,' but these guys love it.
After the Georgia win, they bounced around the locker room as the steady, industrial beat blared from speakers connected to an iPhone. They went crazy. They danced on the table. They jumped. Even coach Sam Winterbotham got in on the act.
"We were just screaming, out of control like little girls," redshirt freshman Taylor Patrick said. "That moment just pretty much describes our team, and everything we worked hard for all year long unfolded in the locker room at that point."
That moment was a definite high point. Another followed a week later when the Vols swept through the SEC Tournament, becoming the first team to win all three matches by shutout.
But it was a moment months earlier that set the stage and served warning that the Vols were poised for one of the best seasons in school history.
Strong at the top
J.P. Smith just grinned.
The junior from Australia watched as video of himself flashed across flatscreen TVs in the East Club in Neyland Stadium to kick off ESPN's announcement of the NCAA Tournament bracket.
A few minutes later, when the Vols found out they had earned the No. 2 overall seed and would host Winthrop on Saturday in the first round at noon, Smith's smile was gone.
It's been like that all year for the Vols - fun and games until it's time to go to work.
"They can switch it on pretty well," Winterbotham said. "They go from goofy, joking with each other to OK, it's time to go. They've learned where the line is. I'm impressed at how well they handle that."
Tennessee's 26-1 record bears witness.
The Vols stormed through the regular season, and the Vols surrendered more than two points to an opponent just three times - and they won two of those matches.
It's no wonder that throughout the year opposing coaches were busy mixing up a batch of Kool-Aid for the Vols, hoping they'd take a sip.
"At the beginning of the year, all the (opposing) coaches were like, `You guys have a great team. You should really win it this year. I don't want to play you guys at home,'" said senior Davey Sandgren, who along with Smith forms the second-seeded team in the NCAA doubles tournament. "It seemed like they were being humble and kind of bowing down to us. But they were really trying to pull that knife out of their boot."
A quick talk from Winterbotham put that tactic in perspective, and it's been a smooth ride to this point.
Except for one Monday in Charlottesville, Va.
Losing always stings, but this was a little different.
In the ITA National Team Indoor Championships in February, the Vols cruised to a spot in the finals against host Virginia. They pounced on the Cavaliers to take the doubles point, but failed to maintain the momentum throughout the match.
Virginia went on to win 4-1, and the Vols watched another team celebrate victory for the only time this season.
"We sort of realized we might have a chance to win and sort of backed off a little bit," Sandgren said. "Virginia didn't want to lose, so they were roaring from behind and they were at home with like 2,000 fans behind them. The tide turned and we were sort of stuck. I think we learned a lot about that definitely."
One of the biggest lessons was making sure the throttle stayed wide open.
For nearly the entire season, the Vols have been able to grab momentum at the beginning of a match and hold it. The loss to Virginia helped crystallize that lesson.
"In tennis, you've got six matches going on at one time. If you can really jump out on three or four or five of those matches and get up, it makes it so much more difficult for the guy that's trying to fight back into the match from the opposition if he sees everybody around him is going down in flames," Winterbotham said. "He starts to count. He starts to say, `OK, how much am I going to try today? They've got the fourth point here.'
"Momentum is really big. That's one thing we stress, but what these guys have bought into. We just kind of release them and say, `OK, boys, let's go out and play.' From the first point for I would say 95 percent of our matches this year, we've had six courts competing right from the start. That's hard to get that."
There's another trick that can sometimes be just as difficult to master.
One big family
First and foremost, Tennessee's tennis program is a family.
With players from India, Australia, Europe and the States, the Vols are nothing if not multi-cultural. But they've been quick to bond through tennis.
"Everyone, basically, on the team has an accent," says Smith, who grew up in Australia. "From us to the people on the team from Tennessee. I think it makes it quite easy to become a closer team."
For some, though, the bond was already formed.
Senior Christopher Williams and his cousin, SEC freshman of the year Rhyne Williams, already had a strong bond before either arrived at UT. Christopher travelled to junior events with his younger cousin, and their extended family is a fixture at matches.
"I don't know how much recruiting we did of Tennys that was successful, but I think his brother did a heck of a job," Winterbotham joked. "I just think that he wanted to play with him his senior year. It's been pretty special seeing those guys. It's a hilarious dynamic. They just rip each other. Just watching some of the stuff these brothers do to each other, it's just painful to watch. It's embarrassing. But they are as close as any family I've seen."
That family includes the entire roster.
It's not easy to get 13 players to buy in, especially when spots in the lineup are so tough to come by.
But Winterbotham tries to make sure everyone knows the score - and their role.
"The theme through our program is developing champions," he said. "It's on the door as they walk into the locker room, it's on (the scoreboard), it's everywhere. It's on our letterhead. That's what (assistant coach) Chris (Woodruff) and I are trying to do.
"That means champions of character as much as champions on the court. I want my players to leave this program and be champions out in their communities and be successful, good people. I think there's a pretty simple formula to do that. Those are our rules - you're honest, you work hard and you compete. Those are the three things that we value above everything else, and that's what we expect every day."
With rare exceptions, Winterbotham gets it.
He said that he can't recall a bad practice all season long, and he raved about his team's maturity. But Winterbotham, who is the SEC's coach of the year for the second time in three years, does plenty to help his own cause.
"Sam recruits a lot of team-worthy guys," Smith said. "When he recruited me, that was his main aspect - how will you handle being around 12 guys all the time? My response was, `It's fine.' I was used to that already (from high school). Everyone enjoys it. We have all different personalities, we come from different cultures. We blend in together."
They stand for each other, too.
As a redshirt freshman on one of the nation's most talented teams, playing time has been a little sparse for Taylor Patrick.
But Patrick, who grew up in Knoxville and is one of six Tennesseans on the team, is as big a part of the team as anyone.
When he hasn't made the travelling squad, he's travelled on his own dime to cheer on his teammates. He's gained plenty of attention for his signature cheer - a robust, `Huh-ho!' - that one opposing player even turned into a ringtone for motivation the rest of the year.
And it's Patrick who was at the center of the moment Winterbotham likes most about the Vols' season.
Back in January, during the team's first dual match of the year, Patrick's was the last match of a long day. The core of UT's team had dispatched ETSU that morning, and the Vols led UTC later in the day 6-0 with Patrick still on the court.
"The match was over," Patrick says. "It did not matter if I won, lost. It did not matter at all."
It did to his teammates.
Locked in a 10-point tiebreaker for the third-set, Patrick's teammates lined the court and cheered like it was the finals at Wimbledon. Up 8-6, Patrick hit the shot of his young career, an ill-advised forehand volley that just scraped the net for a winner.
"Most amazing volley I've ever hit in my life," said Patrick, who closed out his match a point later and gave the Vols a 7-0 win. "I just turned around and gave a fist-pump to my team. They all were just going nuts. If the guys wouldn't have been there, I don't think it would have been the same."
And for all the celebrations since, that remains Winterbotham's favorite moment so far.
"We've had some moments where the guys have won some big matches and the congratulatory hugs and high-fives," Winterbotham said. "But to me as a coach, that time I felt that we had something."