Senior-Heavy, No. 1-Ranked Ohio State Men’s Tennis Team Hungry to Win Program’s First NCAA Title

By Dan Hope on May 14, 2024 at 10:10 am
Justin Boulais
Justin Boulais

Ohio State’s men’s tennis team has accomplished everything except winning an NCAA championship.

The Buckeyes have won 18 consecutive Big Ten championships and 16 Big Ten Tournament championships. They’ve won the ITA indoor national championship three times, claiming their most recent Indoor Nationals title in February. They’ve made it to at least the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament 16 times since 2004, including three appearances in the national championship match and seven trips to the semifinals, but they haven’t yet been able to secure the NCAA team title.

As they take a 33-1 record to Stillwater, Oklahoma, as the No. 1 seed in this year’s NCAA bracket, the Buckeyes are confident this can finally be the season they win it all.

“We've been in this position before, we know how difficult it is, but I truly believe that this year we can really make it happen,” said Ohio State senior Justin Boulais.

The Buckeyes enter this year’s quarterfinals, in which they’ll play No. 8 seed Columbia on Thursday at noon (ESPN+), with an added sense of urgency because of how many seniors they have. Five of the seven regulars in their lineup – Boulais, Cannon Kingsley, JJ Tracy, Robert Cash and Andrew Lutschaunig – are seniors, which means the Buckeyes will be breaking in a mostly new lineup next season.

Boulais, Cash and Kingsley are all fifth-year seniors while Lutschaunig is a sixth-year senior, and all of their careers would have ended last year if the 2020 season hadn’t been shortened due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But they all chose to use their extra year of eligibility for one more shot at achieving their NCAA championship goals.

“We all came back for one reason,” Cash said. “Normally we wouldn't have the luxury of being here and playing this extra year. So we know what it means. We're all like-minded, have the same goal, and we're working our hardest to bring home a national title.”

Those seniors rank among the most accomplished players in program history. Cash is the program’s all-time leader in doubles wins. Kingsley is a three-time All-American. Tracy’s 225 combined singles and doubles wins rank seventh in Ohio State history. Lutschaunig won the NCAA doubles championship with partner James Trotter last year. Boulais has emerged as the team’s No. 1 singles player this season. 

No matter what happens this week, their senior class will hold a special place in Ohio State history.

“I mean, every senior class is special,” Ohio State coach Ty Tucker said. “But you know, you've got Robert Cash from New Albany who's set the doubles record. You have Andrew Lutschaunig, who was an NCAA champion. You have J.J. Tracy, who could be, are there five better players than J.J. Tracy in the history of the program? Cannon Kingsley, I mean, national freshman of the year, three-time All-American. And Justin Boulais. I mean, those guys are great Buckeyes, and they'll be lifelong friends.”

As Ohio State sets its sights on winning a national title this week, those seniors give the Buckeyes plenty of experience playing on the sport’s biggest stage to draw from. All of them were in the lineup last season – as were redshirt sophomore Jack Anthrop and sophomore Alex Bernard, the other two members of the Buckeyes’ current playing lineup – when Ohio State made it to the national championship match before falling to Virginia in the NCAA final. They know from that experience how tough it is to win it all, while they also know what it takes to complete a championship run from this year’s Indoor Nationals.

“We just need to keep peaking at the right time,” Cash said. “We've done great the last couple of years. We got to the Final Four, we lost in the final last year. So just keep focusing on ourselves, keep getting better in practice every day, try to play our best at the right time. And we have confidence in ourselves that anything can happen, so we're definitely hopeful and confident when we go to Stillwater that we can bring a title home.”

With so much experience playing together, Boulais believes the Buckeyes’ team chemistry is as strong as it’s ever been entering the team’s trip to this year’s NCAA Championships.

“I think that the team chemistry this year has been something unlike anything in the past,” Boulais said. “I feel like everybody this year is just super, super close. It means so much to everybody and we're all really eager to go after the same goal.”

“We've been in this position before, we know how difficult it is, but I truly believe that this year we can really make it happen.”– Justin Boulais on competing for an NCAA championship

All of the last 19 NCAA champions in men’s tennis have been teams from the southern half of the country, who have the advantage of playing more regular-season matches outdoors whereas Ohio State spends much of its season playing indoors. That’s played a factor in the Buckeyes often being more successful indoors than they’ve been outdoors, but they’ve worked hard to overcome that disadvantage this year.

“I think we're getting better every single day outside,” Cash said. “We don't have the luxury of playing outside as much as some of the other teams down south and stuff. So every day we get out here, every match we get to play outside, we're definitely getting better. We can see it in practice, we can see it in the matches, so very confident and happy with how we're doing.”

On paper, Ohio State should be the favorite to win this year’s NCAA championship. OSU is the only team in the country that’s lost just one match all season, and the Buckeyes already have wins this season against three of the other seven teams that advanced to the quarterfinals. They’ve made easy work of their first three opponents in NCAA Tournament play, starting with a 4-0 win over Cleveland State before 4-1 wins over Oklahoma State and Mississippi State.

That said, their path to a title won’t be easy. Columbia brings a 23-3 record into Thursday’s match. Their semifinal opponent would be either No. 4 seed TCU, who gave the Buckeyes all they could handle in their 4-3 win in the Indoor Nationals championship match, or No. 5 seed Kentucky, which has lost just twice this season. Potential final opponents for the Buckeyes include the only team that’s beaten them this year (No. 2 seed Texas) and the two-time defending national champion (No. 3 seed Virginia).

At this point in the tournament, every team is capable of beating any other team, making the margin of error in each match slim. Tucker says his team needs to start by focusing on winning the doubles point in every match.

“If you get that doubles point, the Buckeyes are tough to beat,” Tucker said. “We lost the doubles point three times from the round of 16 through the final match at the National Indoors … so we were capable of taking four of six singles (matches), but you don't want to have to do that. You want to be able to go out there, split three out of six singles, grab your four points, and move on to the next round.”

With most of the team’s top players knowing this is their final chance to win the NCAA championship that’s eluded them, the Buckeyes are as hungry as they’ve ever been to make program history, especially with how close they came last year.

“When you get so close, it always sucks. But I think that really gave us a lot more motivation this year because, I mean, we know how rare it is to get your chance and last year we had our shot in the final,” Boulais said. “So this year we're all extremely motivated to give it our all and to hopefully win a title.”

With the target on their back of being the top-ranked team, though, Tucker knows every other team in the field will be just as motivated to beat the Buckeyes.

“At the end of the day, we've had a darn good group of guys, but there's seven other teams that want to kick our butts. So we've got to go in that locker room and get ready to roll,” Tucker said.

If Ohio State advances to the semifinals, it will play either TCU or Kentucky on Saturday at noon. If the Buckeyes advance to the final, they will play one of Texas, Virginia, No. 6 Wake Forest or No. 7 Tennessee at 5 p.m. Sunday. All matches will be streamed on ESPN+.

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