A Missouri Valley Conference championship was at stake for the Wichita State mens tennis team, which entered Sunday as overwhelming underdogs to top-seeded Drake, and freshman Tin Ostojic searched for some familiar faces on the sidelines.
He saw fellow Shockers and childhood friends Tomislav Gregurovic and Ilija Cuic, who attended the same high school and played in the same tennis academy in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia.
And he knew.
I saw the look in their eyes and I saw they trusted me, Ostojic said. I knew I was going to win.
As Ostojic broke the serve of Drakes Robin Goodman in the last and decisive singles match, it took the trio back to their days in Croatia when Ostojic was known for his composure in big matches.
Its like hes playing in a field or something, Cuic said. Not for a MVC title.
But thats exactly what he won the Shockers, as they upended Drake, a top-30 team in the nation, winning the final singles match with the MVC Freshman of the Year to take the 4-3 victory.
After WSU won the doubles point the 18th time in 20 tries it came down to the final four singles matches, as Drake easily took care of the No. 1 and No. 2.
All four of the matches went to a third set and three of them required seven games, making for an intense atmosphere on all courts.
Gregurovic gave the Shockers the first momentum swing when he recovered from being down 5-4 to win the next three games, including the game-winner on a backhand that caught the edge of the line.
Croatians, Gregurovic later explained, are known as emotional people, which explained why he ripped off his shirt and proceeded to watch the final 30 minutes of the match shirtless and screaming animatedly at his teammates.
My emotions just went off, Gregurovic said. They just went off. Croatians are a little bit crazy.
The next swing came when Erick Reyes finished off his No. 5 match with a convincing 6-1 victory, tying the match at three points apiece.
All attention swung to Ostojic, stuck in a tussle with Drakes No. 3 player.
If I could choose, Gregurovic said, I would take him every time to finish a match.
But Ostojic let a 5-2 lead slip away, as Drake rallied to tie the count at five. Thats when he found his Croatian friends in the stands.
After winning on his serve, Ostojic finished the match off when he broke Drakes serve.
It feels amazing, Ostojic said. I dont really know how to describe it. Maybe in a few days from now, Ill be able to explain it.
Wichita State coach Brad Louderback let out a victory fist pump and found senior and No. 1 singles player Matheus Pereira. Although he lost his singles match, Pereira is who the team considers their heart and soul.
Sometimes a coach wants to win it for everybody on the team, Louderback said. But when you have a senior like Matheus, you want to win it for him so badly. That makes a coach feel happy.
And the Croatian-to-WSU connection may not be over.
Were trying to bring more of our friends, Gregurovic said. Its worked out pretty good for us.
As Louderback yelled for his three Croatians to bring in for a group hug, he laughed and remarked how difficult it is to handle all three of their personalities at times.
It might be stressful with how emotional each of them are, but Louderback told them how valuable they are to the program.
Maybe Brad is going to go crazy on us, Cuic said. Were a little crazy sometimes, but I think he likes us. He keeps us under control and that takes a lot of work to keep us in line, but in the end, its worth it.
Five in a row The conference tournament felt more like a coronation than a competition for the Wichita State womens tennis team, which proved why Sunday in its third straight 4-0 romp, this time over Southern Illinois for its fifth consecutive Missouri Valley tournament title.
We never take it for granted, WSU womens coach Collin Foster said. This is always special. We expect to win it and thats our goal every year. But we know it takes a lot of hard work.
After losing 10 of 15 non-conference matches, the Shockers appeared vulnerable. But the team says the losing built the character it used the last three days to capture another title.
This is the happiest day of the year, said Satjaporn Mahajaroenkul, who won a singles and doubles point for WSU. It was frustrating when we kept losing and we got down a bit, but when the Missouri Valley came, it was like a startover.
Foster expects the Shockers to receive another No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The team will discover its destination on Tuesday.
Once we got going, you could see how much belief and desire the girls had to continue dominating the conference, Foster said. Hopefully we can keep this momentum going.
WSU 4, Southern Illinois 0
Singles2. Julia Schiller, WSU, def. Natasha Tomishima, SIU, 6-3, 7-6; Montse Blasco Fernandez, WSU, def. Ariadna Cairo Baza, SIU, 6-1, 6-0; 5. Satjaporn Mahajaroenkul, WSU, 6-1, 6-0.
Doubles2. Carla Venticinque-Rebecca Pedrazzi, WSU, def. Natasha Tomishima-Jennifer Dien, SIU, 8-6; 3. Satjaporn Mahajaroenkul-Montse Blasco Fernandez, WSU, 8-2.
WSU 4, Drake 3
Singles1. Anis Ghorbel, Drake, def. Matheus Pereira, WSU, 6-2, 7-5; 2. James McKie, Drake, def. Ilija Cuic, WSU, 6-1, 6-1; 3. Tin Ostojic, WSU, def. Robin Goodman, Drake, 6-4, 3-6, 7-5; 4. Gregurovic Tomislav Gregurovic, WSU, def. Alen Salibasic, Drake, 3-6, 6-3, 7-5; 5. Erick Reyes, WSU, def. Jean Erasmus, Drake, 4-6, 6-4, 6-1; 6. Ben Mullis, Drake, def. Nicol Guillermo, WSU, 4-6, 6-1, 7-6.
Doubles1. Matheus Pereira-Tin Ostojic, WSU, def. Jean Erasmus-Alen Salibasic, Drake, 8-5; 2. Ilija Cuic-Erick Reyes, WSU, def. James McKie-Ben Lott, Drake, 8-5.