The two seasons prior to this year were tough ones for South Carolina men's tennis coach Josh Goffi and his team. There was talent on the squad, but something always seemed to get in the way. Whether it be injury, illness or something else, the Gamecocks could never put a full-strength team on the court.
The result was two years where South Carolina struggled to stay above .500 and had just seven combined SEC wins.
But late last season, something finally clicked for the Gamecocks. They won two out of their final three regular season matches, including a huge win on the road against a top-15 Arkansas team. South Carolina would beat the Razorbacks again to open the SEC tournament, and ultimately fell just short of a surprise NCAA Tournament berth.
"It started last year around March," Goffi said. "You could see the team made a switch and officially bought in. That was a major turning point for this squad. This team has been extremely determined to carry on what they did last year at the end. It's great to see them continue what they've been building."
As Goffi hinted at, this season has made up for the struggles of the last couple of years. South Carolina has showcased the talent that has always been there, and the Gamecocks enter the SEC tournament this weekend with a 20-5 overall record. After just seven combined SEC wins in the last two years, they have won nine matches in conference play in 2017.
Goffi has received texts from other SEC coaches telling him that they've seen the difference in his team this year. Those coaches know that Goffi's players have bought into the message.
"It's been awesome," Goffi said. "The guys, they're getting everything they deserve. They sacrificed so much to be where they're at and turn the ship around. This team was determined from the very start to turn it around, and they did. They're willing to reflect week to week and see where they need to get better. I think we have a lot left to prove."
Thanks to the strong regular season, South Carolina earned the No. 4 seed and a double-bye in the SEC tournament. The No. 19 Gamecocks open up play on Friday against No. 18 Mississippi State, a team they defeated to close out the regular season 12 days ago.
The Bulldogs defeated Vanderbilt, 4-1, on Thursday while South Carolina was able to get an extra day of rest.
"The play-in teams that are coming in our direction have a nice big, long match the day before," Goffi said. "It's mentally and physically pretty tough. We like to see that very much. I think the championship is winnable this year, and I think it's something our guys truly believe that we can do. That's the goal, obviously."
An example of how completely the team has bought into Goffi's message is the balance across the singles lineup. Five different players have at least six SEC wins on the year, meaning that the Gamecocks can get points from anywhere on the court on any given day. They don't have to rely on their top one or two players to carry them.
South Carolina does have the benefit of two experienced and talented athletes at the top spots. Gabriel Friedrich, ranked No. 52, and Harrison O'Keefe, ranked No. 67, can both play at No. 1 in the singles lineup, and are the leaders of the team. Meanwhile, newcomer Paul Jubb has compiled a 7-2 SEC record while playing near the bottom of the singles lineup. The freshman's first loss in conference play didn't come until April 9 against Georgia.
"When you have a good top and solid bottom, sandwiching the middle guys in there, that's what breeds confidence," Goffi said.
One of three seniors on the team, Andrew Schafer has been solid in the middle of the singles lineup as well. He leads the Gamecocks with eight wins in conference play.
The Gamecocks have also been strong in doubles play, led by the No. 1 group of Yancy Dennis and O'Keefe.
"When your one team is winning and pulling in points, it takes a little pressure off the two team," Goffi said. "Those guys have become a pretty good team. We knew that was a future No. 1 if they were ever able to click, and they've definitely clicked."
Winners of eight of nine entering the SEC tournament, South Carolina hopes to make some noise up in Knoxville, Tennessee. Start time between the Gamecocks and Bulldogs in the quarterfinals on Friday is set for 6 p.m.
**Story by Kyle Heck/photo by Allen Sharpe**