Freshman Bryce Bettwy serves a ball during a practice on Tuesday. Photo by Prescott Watson.
Junior Yushi Ayabe returns a serve during the team’s Wednesday practice. Within NCAA Division III, men’s tennis at UCSC is a powerhouse, with seven titles and the most Division III final appearances in the country. Photo by Prescott Watson.

With seven NCAA Division III titles and the most NCAA Division III final appearances in the country, the UC Santa Cruz men’s tennis team doesn’t have to do much to prove it belongs among the elite in collegiate tennis. However, that reputation does not leave the team resting on its laurels.

This weekend, the team is traveling down to Ojai, Calif. to participate in the 111th Ojai Valley Tennis Tournament. One of the biggest tennis tournaments in the nation, Ojai sees competition all the way from Division I to the the high school level. The competition is split into a number of tournaments, with Divison III, community colleges, high schools and the Pacific-10 Conference all playing in their own individual brackets.

UCSC men’s tennis coach Bob Hansen said that size and scope of the playing field makes Ojai a proving ground for the players.

“It’s a huge tournament,” Hansen said. “It’s a finer atmosphere. It’s the closest many of our guys will get to the pros.”

Besides the importance that the tournament holds in the tennis world, performance at Ojai also has implications for the NCAA Division III tournament later in May. The seeding for the tournament is decided by a panel of judges, and Hansen said Ojai is one of the judges last chances to look at the players before making their decision.

In spite of the mounting pressure, the team is still keeping its cool. After a successful showing at Ojai last year when senior Brian Pybas took first place in singles, the team is confident that they can put on a strong performance this year. Sophomore Parker Larsen, the third-ranked singles player on the team and Pybas’ partner as part of the team’s No. 1 doubles duo, said he has high expectations for the tournament.

“I hope to see every Slug go as far as they can go,” Larsen said. “I know we have the potential to go all the way. I expect to see medals.”

While coach Hansen shares that optimism, he made note of the fact that the tournament won’t be easy by any means.

“I feel good about where we are and about our training. I want to see a deep run by a number of our players and I expect to do so [as well],” Hansen said. “But that being said, from the first round forward there are a lot of obstacles. There will be no shortage of very talented players for sure.”

sIn addition to the competition, both Pybas and Larsen also acknowledged that the sheer length of the tournament is a challenge in and of itself. With multiple matches each day over the entire weekend, the tournament will also be a test of stamina for the players.

“It’s a really tough tournament,” Pybas said. “You play singles and doubles and you play three or four matches a day. By the time you get to Sunday you’re pretty beat.”

The second-ranked singles player, senior Erich Koenig, said one of the ways to combat that fatigue is to capitalize on the earlier matches, which may be less competitive.

“[I want to] manage the matches I can win easily and not play more tennis than I have to,” Koenig said. “[Ojai] is a mental and physical challenge.”

The team members are eager to go to Ojai. Larsen and Koenig, as well as the team’s fifth singles player, sophomore Sam Rodgers, agree it is the atmosphere at Ojai that makes it such a special tournament for the team. The players who make it to finals at Libbey Park have the chance to play in a stadium alongside the televised Division I final, and follow in the footsteps of tennis superstars like Andre Agassi, who played at Libbey Park in his youth.

“[Playing at Ojai means] being a part of a lot of really special players,” Rodgers said. “The history there is hard to match. It’s what you play for.”