It's that time of year again - the moment that USC's men's and women's tennis teams have been preparing for all season long. The NCAA tennis team championships are beginning on May 9, and the Trojan squads are prepared to make themselves heard.
Both the Trojans and the Women of Troy will face off against the Idaho Vandals in the first round of the tournament at USC's Marks Stadium from May 9-11.
USC's men's tennis team, the top-ranked squad in the nation, earned the No. 1 overall seed in the 64-team tournament and will host Idaho on May 10 at noon.
"It's an honor and it's a privilege to be the No. 1 seed, and that's great," said USC head coach Peter Smith. "But that and a dollar will get you a cup of coffee - it's really meaningless. I'm not really ever into what we've done, it's all about what we're gonna do."
The Trojans boast a 26-3 overall record heading into the NCAA tournament, highlighted by two wins over crosstown rival UCLA, a run to the championships of the ITA Team National Indoor Tournament and a perfect 7-0 mark in Pac-12 play.
Heading into NCAAs, though, the team will have to bounce back from last weekend's loss in the Pac-12 championship match to the Bruins (22-3, 6-1). In that match, the Trojans ceded the doubles point and couldn't pull their weight in singles, despite wins on the top two courts by junior Yannick Hanfmann and senior co-captain Ray Sarmiento.
In the first round of NCAAs, USC will host unranked Idaho (11-13, 2-1 Western Athletic Conderence), who received an automatic bid to the tournament by winning the WAC tournament. Idaho has no players ranked in singles or doubles by the ITA, but is riding a season-high four-match winning streak.
Should the Trojans defeat the Vandals in the first round, they would face the winner of the first-round matchup between No. 28 Oklahoma State and No. 43 Michigan in a second-round tilt on May 11 at 1 p.m. The Cowboys are the second-seeded team in the West regional and boast a 21-7 record, while the Wolverines have put together a 16-12 record this season.
In the time leading up to the tournament, the Trojans are focusing on sharpening their skills.
"I think these two weeks are gonna be key for what's gonna happen at the NCAAs," said junior Roberto Quiroz, who has won 17 straight matches. "We have to push ourselves and try to get better every day to give ourselves a chance to win it."
Last year, the Trojans breezed through the first two rounds of the tournament and the Round of 16. This set up a quarterfinal tilt against Ohio State in which the Buckeyes were able to end USC's drive for a fifth straight national championship.
Smith asserts that this team has a better shot of making a deep run in the tournament than last year's team did.
"I think we're a lot closer [than last year's squad]," Smith said. "I think everybody mostly has their egos in check, I think everybody is team-oriented, team-first. And so I think the culture of this team is a lot better than the culture of that team. I would say culture wins out over talent, 99 times out of 100."
And while USC's men's team appears even stronger than it did at this time last year, USC's women's squad has had quite a rocky season.
Last year around this time, the Women of Troy earned the No. 5 overall seed after going 21-2 on the season. This time around, USC's 13th-ranked women's team is 16-7 and is heading into the NCAA tournament as the No. 16 seed.
Though the team hasn't put together quite as impressive of a record as it did last season, some members still found success at this year's Pac-12 championships.
Though the men's conference tournament is a team competition, the women play in singles or doubles only, and USC's women put on a dominant performance last weekend in Ojai, Calif.
Junior Zoë Scandalis, ranked No. 27 in the nation, defeated four nationally ranked opponents (two of whom were ranked higher than the San Diego native) on her way to the title match, where she faced off against UCLA's Jennifer Brady. Scandalis lost in straight sets but demonstrated impressive resolve in making it to the finals.
Additionally, junior Giuliana Olmos won the Pac-12 singles invitational crown.
Olmos continued her winning ways in doubles that day with Christian. In its first tournament together all season, the duo worked its way to a spot in the finals against top-seeded Kristie Ahn and Carol Zhao of Stanford. The Women of Troy kept their composure and upset the Cardinal duo, 6-3, 6-3. With the win, Christian earned her third consecutive Pac-12 doubles crown, having won the title with Santamaria twice before.
"We are very excited about our results at the Pac-12 championship with a doubles victory and a finalist in singles," said USC women's head coach Richard Gallien. "Giuliana winning the invitational was a great boost for her as well."
This success will provide the team some momentum heading into NCAAs against a 19-5 Idaho squad that, despite having no ranked players, just won the WAC championship. The Women of Troy will face Idaho on May 9 at 2 p.m.
If the Women of Troy come out on top against the Vandals, the team will face the winner of the match between No. 17 Michigan and No. 71 Fresno State. Though nothing is guaranteed, Gallien hopes to use the home-court advantage to defeat Idaho and face the challenge of Michigan in the second round on May 11 at 3 p.m.
"We are fired up to host the first two rounds of the NCAAs," Gallien said. "We need to get by a tough Idaho squad and Michigan team to move on, but we are healthy and confident so I know we are going to be ready to really compete our very best."
Despite losing star player Santamaria for the season due to an ACL injury, the team is attempting to make a deep run in the tournament relative to last year.
In 2013, the Women of Troy blazed through the opening two rounds at Marks Stadium but couldn't produce a victory over Stanford in the Round of 16, falling 4-3.
Both the men's and women's tennis teams are determined to make it past the first two rounds in Los Angeles and move on to more competitive play in Athens, Ga. Though it will be a long run to the finish line, Smith is convinced that if his Trojans put in the work, they will have what it takes to bring home their fifth national championship trophy in six years.
"Right now, it's, ‘How much does the team want to suffer in the next two weeks?'" Smith said on a sweltering 90-degree day. "If we want to suffer, then we've got a chance. I hope it's hot like this every single day. It's miserable, and it's great. It's gonna be miserable in Athens, and we're gonna have to play through that miserableness to be successful."
USC's teams have spent all season preparing for this tournament and know that they have to perform their best to come out on top.
Sarmiento says the Trojans are reveling in the chance to display their talents and prove their worth as the No. 1 team in the country.
"Obviously we have a target on our back, but that's a good thing," Sarmiento said. "We'll always be ready."