The Coastal Georgia will begin play in the NAIA Men’s Tennis National Championship this morning in Mobile, Ala.
The 20th-ranked Mariners earned an at-large berth in the 24-team field and enters the tournament as the No. 18 seed at 12-5 on the season.
Coastal’s first-round opponent, 16th-ranked Cumberland (Tenn.) University, is the No. 15 seed after also receiving an at-large bid. The match is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. today.
“Everyone is extremely excited to represent Coastal Georgia at nationals,” Mariners head coach Zack Rogers said in a statement. “The fact that we got the last at-large bid has the guys hungry to prove they belong here, but at the same time, we are just very appreciative to be here.”
Today marks the fifth national tournament appearance for Coastal Georgia, which had a streak of four straight appearances snapped when it missed the tournament last spring.
The Mariners bounced back to capture a spot in the tournament despite being forced to reshuffle their lineup twice this season after losing a player during the fall semester and another during the spring.
“I am proud of the grit and determination this group has shown,” Rogers said. “They have grown from being a team of individuals in the fall, to being a family.
“They have selflessly committed themselves to making their teammates better, and I hope they continue to fight for one another and achieve something special this week.”
Coastal Georgia persevered and finished second in The Sun Conference behind Keiser University in the regular season, losing only to the Seahawks during conference play, and again in the conference tournament, as the Mariners finished as the runner-up after falling in the championship match.
The two programs are the only teams from The Sun Conference competing at the national tournament.
Coastal Georgia’s first-round opponent, Cumberland, is making its sixth trip to the NAIA Championship and its second straight after advancing to the quarterfinal round a year ago.
The Phoenix earned the regular-season crown in the Mid-South Conference, but they lost in the semifinals of the conference tournament as they dropped to 3-6 against ranked opponents this season.
Coastal Georgia and Cumberland were scheduled to meet in Macon for a match at the John Drew Tennis Center on March 3 before it was cancelled by rain. The stakes in the make up match will be much larger.
“Cumberland is a program that spent the majority of last year and this season in the top 10,” Rogers said. “They are an extremely talented and well-coached team. They are a team of grinders who don’t give lines away without a fight. We had them on the schedule in March, but Mother Nature didn’t allow the match to happen. It’s a good matchup for us, but we are going to have to play our best if we want to move on to the round of 16.
“The boys put in a ton of work the last two weeks, so my hopes are that their hard work translates into a fast start in doubles and a more focused approach to singles play.”
The Mariners won’t alter the lineup they used in the Sun Conference tournament as the doubles teams will be made up of Matthew Hulme and Ben Dolan at No. 1, Khanyakweze Ramokgopa and Eric Gravelle at No. 2, and Bautista Chiaradia and Adrian Farina in the third slot.
In singles play, Hulme will assume the position of No. 1 with Dolan, Gravelle, Chiaradia, Ramokgopa, and Farina following in order.
The winning team will advance to the second round Wednesday for a match against No. 2 seed Reinhardt, which earned an opening-round bye as one of the top eight seeds in the tournament. Reinhardt beat Coastal Georgia 7-2 in a match at the Marta B. Torrey Tennis Center on March 6.
“Getting past Cumberland would secure our program a place in the top 15 for the start of next season,” Rogers said. “That obviously is our first goal. Reinhardt would be a bear in the round of 16, but strictly from a talent standpoint, we have the capability to stick around and make a run deep into the tournament.
“With that being said, every team in our section of the bracket has the talent needed to be in Mobile on the 18th playing for a National Championship, but our goal is to be that team.”
Coastal Georgia is 3-4 all-time at the national championships, and 2-1 in the first round of the tournament. The Mariners reached the quarterfinals of the 2016 tournament with a second-round victory over Lewis-Clark State after earning a first-round bye as a top-eight seed.