Coach Billy Martin said he was worried.
As his team prepared for its first match of the regular season against UC Irvine, his lineup was up in the air. With sophomore Gage Brymer away for personal reasons and freshman Martin Redlicki sitting out the singles portion to rest up for the weekend, the Bruins would face a tougher match than expected.
“I was quite nervous about it,” Martin said. “With a couple situations that prevented some top players from being able to help us today, that made me extremely nervous.”
Martin leaned on the leadership of junior co-captain Karue Sell, who moved into the third spot in the lineup and dominated UCI’s Tyler Pham 6-0, 6-1 after combining with Joseph Di Giulio to win their doubles match 6-4, to overcome the unexpected adversity and beat Irvine 4-0 in a quick match that ended in about 90 minutes. Sell said playing at the Sherwood Collegiate Cup on the weekend helped prepare him to compete again after the winter holidays.
“Usually the problem is competing again, but I felt good,” Sell said. “I had a few setbacks with my serve. I’m kind of used to that; I’ll work on that – but I felt good overall, good match, fast match. That’s what I wanted.”
Sell, who received the MVP award for the match from Martin, was not the only player who stepped up to lead the Bruins to victory. Freshman Austin Rapp, playing in the first dual match of his college career, picked up a doubles victory alongside senior Dennis Mkrtchian and won his singles match 6-4, 6-2 over Irvine’s Jonathan Hammel on court five.
“I was serving well, and I played the big points well,” Rapp said. “I had some deuce points on my serve games, and I hit some big ones to stay alive and stay in the match. It’s good to get the jitters out a little bit and have a match to get in the swing of things.”
Martin said Rapp’s performance was one of the highlights of the match.
“It’s exciting to see one of our top recruits do a good job,” Martin said. “What I really liked seeing with Austin was he looked like he wanted to be there. He didn’t look timid. He didn’t look hesitant – he was just being the same player that he was in the juniors.” Rapp’s doubles partner, Mkrtchian, fresh off a finals appearance in Sherwood, dealt with fatigue against Irvine’s Sebastian Heim, whom Mkrtchian beat in a grueling three-set match at regionals in October.
“Having a few players out of the singles lineup, I just couldn’t afford to not play Dennis today in singles,” Martin said. “I knew that matchup was going to be tough, just a guy who really grinds.”
Mkrtchian won a slow first set 7-5 before Rapp clinched the dual match with his fifth-court victory. The coaches agreed to stop the match after one team earned four victories in order to help preserve energy for the weekend, when UCLA will face Pepperdine on Friday and either Boise State or Texas Tech on Saturday for the ITA Division I Kick-Off Weekend.
“I didn’t want it to get into a long, drawn-out battle today if possible,” Martin said. “We’ll take it if that’s the only way you can win it, but we were hoping to get a shorter one so we could be a little fresher for Friday.”