Robert Loeb smiled and chuckled when he was reminded of what happened the last time the Georgia men’s tennis team took on USC.
It was during the SEC/Pac-12 Showdown in Gainesville, Florida, with the Trojans blowing the Bulldogs out 4-0.
But that was a long time ago on Feb. 5. Three months have passed since that last meeting, giving Loeb confidence that Thursday’s round of 16 meeting at the NCAA Championships in Athens will be different.
“We’ve all gotten a lot better,” Loeb said. “USC is a really good team so we know it’s going to be a battle but we’re ready.”
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A lot has certainly changed since.
Loeb and partner Jan Zielinski lost their doubles match against USC as the 54th-ranked group in the nation. Since, Loeb and Zielinski have caught fire and ascended to No. 1 in the country.
The doubles point will be a crucial area for Georgia in terms of capturing the early momentum of the dual match. In the previous meeting against USC, four of the six singles matches featured a set decided by two or fewer games.
Even so, head coach Manny Diaz felt that first match was one-sided.
“We kind of hobbled off the court because they beat us so badly,” Diaz said. “I think we are a better team now. We’re really hoping to have a good match on Thursday.”
Georgia features a young team with five freshmen, three sophomores and three juniors.
It took some time for this year’s team to gel, considering the early-season losses the Bulldogs took. Georgia has also had to overcome numerous injuries, including one to Paul Oosterbaan. Oosterbaan underwent a surgical procedure to repair a wrist ligament and won't play during the remainder of the postseason.
And most recently, Georgia is also dealing with a law enforcement investigation into a reported prescription drug theft at its tennis facility.
But since SEC play began in March, Georgia has picked up steam. The Bulldogs went 11-2 in league play before winning three consecutive matches to win the SEC Tournament.
Including last week’s opening-round victories, Georgia has won 16 of its past 18 matches.
“I think our guys have shown tremendous maturity,” Diaz said. “We’ve improved a lot. I think our freshmen have seasoned and matured a lot.”
Aiding this young Georgia team will be playing the NCAA Championships at home. Playing in front of a rowdy home crowd should give the 13th-seeded Bulldogs an advantage. Adding to the incentive is the fact Georgia, a common host site for the NCAA Championships, won’t hold the tournament for at least the next five years.
Georgia has hosted 32 total NCAA Championships, including 13 consecutive men’s tournaments from 1977-89. The longest Georgia has gone previously without hosting an NCAA Championships was four years after hosting the 1972 tournament. Beginning in 1977, Georgia’s Dan Magill Tennis Complex has been a common site for the NCAA Championships.
That will change after this year's national championship tournament. And Georgia will certainly want to leave an impression on its home court that lasts for a while.
“The atmosphere is quite unique,” Diaz said. “We have a tremendous following. Not only our fans but everyone that loves college tennis from all across the nation seems to make it a special trip to Athens. They know it is. I think maybe even more so now they know the tournament is going to be gone for (at least five) years. I think we’ll have a great atmosphere.”