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Defending champs Auburn know all about the underdog story

2017 Tennis On Campus Auburn 

By Ashley Marshall

ORLANDO, Fla. -- If there’s one team that knows a thing or two about making a surprise run at the Tennis On Campus National Championship, it’s the Auburn Tigers.

After all, the Tigers defied the odds in Cary, N.C., in 2016 to win their first title, a triumph few people inside or outside the Auburn campus saw coming.

Fast forward 12 months and the Tigers step onto the courts at the USTA National Campus at Lake Nona in Orlando, Fla., as defending champions. This time, there will be a target on their backs, and club president Mitchell Vegas is well aware of the potential for previously unheralded teams to make a run at the crown.

“It only takes two or three new players on a roster to make a run,” said Vegas, a civil engineering senior from Spanish Fort, Ala. “You always have to be careful. Last year, our secret was people performing when they needed to. If our girls’ doubles lost, our girls’ singles would win. If our guys’ doubles lost, our guys’ singles would win. We picked each other up when we were down.”

The biggest change to the Tigers’ 2017 roster was the loss of graduating senior Ashley Kitchen, a former varsity standout who moved to club tennis after her junior year, and Alexandria Hall, who played girls’ doubles.

In their place this year are former Alabama grad student Lindsay Grosz, ex-varsity player Amanda Bertoldi and freshman Hannah Nelson. Junior Hannah Shoener is the lone returning woman from the 2016 championship team.

As much change is there is on the women’s side, the men’s lineup is largely the same. Juniors Marshall Brown and William McWhirt return along with Vegas, and freshman Nathan Wang rounds out the eight-player squad.

“We’ve added three new girls and one new guy,” said Vegas, who is making his fourth and final trip to the championship. “We’ve made up for losing Ashley by adding extra depth, and the singles and doubles are now improved. The guys are basically the exact same team and they usually end up positive, winning more games than they lose.”

Auburn received a bid to the 2017 National Championship by virtue of winning the 2016 tournament, but it would have still qualified this year even without that automatic berth. It finished second in the Tennis On Campus Fall Invitational in Hilton Head, S.C., in October and won the Volunteer Classic in Knoxville, Tenn., in February.

The Tigers face Middle States sectional champions University of Pennsylvania, University of Miami and Iowa State University in Pool K. Should they top that pool and advance to the gold bracket, they would face the winner of Pool I, which includes Mid-Atlantic sectional champs University of Virginia.

“The whole team is excited to go back to Nationals,” said Vegas, a first-time president who was on the court with Kitchen last April when the Tigers completed a thrilling come-from-behind overtime victory to defeat local favorite University of North Carolina. “It’s going to be bittersweet for me because it’s the last time with the team, but it’s definitely going to be a good one. 

“We can’t do anything better than last year, but there’s no pressure on us to repeat. We’ll have the same mentality as last year and go as hard as we can every match."