Despite suffering a narrow 4-3 loss to No. 21 Columbia, the No. 23 North Carolina men’s tennis team isn’t discouraged — they’re motivated and confident heading into conference play next week.
The loss showed the Tar Heels’ that although they have areas to improve in, they have several critical components a team needs to compete against some of the nation’s top teams and be a force in the ACC, such as depth, individual growth and talent.
Even without senior Mac Kiger, who normally fills the third spot in UNC’s starting lineup, the Tar Heels took a top-25 team wire-to-wire and nearly beat them. The Tar Heels’ performance without Kiger is encouraging not only because of what it indicates UNC is capable of with him, but also because it shows the depth of the team.
Players such as sophomore Logan Zapp, junior Anuj Watane and sophomore Peter Murphy stepped up significantly with Kiger sidelined.
Zapp recorded his first win against a ranked opponent after filling in at Kiger’s spot in the rotation by defeating Columbia’s No. 96 Hugo Hashimoto 2-0.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Zapp said. “I’ve had a couple of heartbreakers against State and Illinois. I was always right there, but I couldn’t close at the very end, so this time I just tried to focus on that.”
While both Watane and Murphy lost their matches, they showed signs of growth, as well as the depth of the Tar Heels’ roster.
After falling behind 5-0 early in the first set, Watane scored three straight to draw within two of Columbia’s Henry Ruger before eventually losing the set. But Watane’s momentum carried over into the next set, where he got an early 3-1 lead before eventually falling 7-5.
Murphy — who filled in at the sixth spot in the rotation after everyone ahead of him moved up to fill Kiger’s void — went to three sets against Columbia’s Roko Horvat and played well in a pressure situation with the game on the line despite ultimately losing.
“I’m hurting for Peter because he puts in so much work,” senior Brian Cernoch said. “He’s one of the hardest working guys, if not the hardest working guy on the team, and he really just got unlucky there.”
Although the scoreboard may not have reflected well on Zapp, Watane and Murphy, they showed just how good this UNC roster is by playing strong games in tough spots, all while Kiger was sidelined.
Along with depth, the Tar Heels also exhibited individual growth and talent against Columbia. Aside from Zapp recording his first win against a ranked opponent, Cernoch and senior Benjamin Sigouin flexed their muscles and showed development against the Lions.
Cernoch defeated No. 7 Alex Kotzen 2-1, indicating he’s capable of competing with any of the nation’s best players in singles matches. Sigouin jumped out to an early 4-1 lead against Columbia’s Max Westphal before going on a skid and eventually falling behind Westphal 6-5. Sigouin, however, fought through adversity and won the set 7-6 and the match 2-0.
While the scoreboard indicates the Tar Heels should be worried heading into conference play, they’re confident and motivated with Kiger’s return. And the start of the ACC and outdoor season looming on the horizon.
“We’re looking forward to the conference,” head coach Sam Paul said. “We’re looking forward to playing some really good teams in the conference and we think we’re going to be a better outdoor team than we were an indoor team.”
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