Mazen Osama is 23 years old, which is a little old for a junior in college.
“First time I saw him, I thought he was 35,” says Edson Ortiz, Osama’s 19-year-old doubles partner on the Alabama men’s tennis team.
The Crimson Tide, which opens play Wednesday at 4 p.m. against Auburn in the SEC Tournament at the Alabama Tennis Stadium, is a team with no seniors. Osama is the only junior. He’s the old man.
SEC Men’s Tennis Tournament
Where: Alabama Tennis Stadium
Wednesday’s schedule: Alabama vs. Auburn, 4 p.m.
Thursday’s schedule: LSU vs. Vanderbilt and South Carolina vs. Ole Miss, noon; Alabama
Auburn winner vs. Kentucky and Arkansas vs. Georgia, 4 p.m.
Friday’s schedule: Quarterfinals, noon and 4 p.m.
Saturday’s schedule: Semifinals, 2 p.m.
Sunday’s schedule: Championship, noon
“These guys, they work really hard,” Osama said. “I try to support them the best I can.”
How did George Husack, Alabama’s coach, end up with a roster that includes only one upperclassman?
“We had to reshape the culture and redevelop it two years ago,” he said. “This is the first group of young guys who are in to do what it takes as students and athletes to win.
“We’re a good team. These guys have the commitment, they have the talent, they have the energy level, but they don’t have the experience.”
Husack’s rebuilding effort will be on display at the SEC Tournament. Alabama and Auburn are in a play-in game – the field has 13 teams, with Missouri not fielding a team in the sport – with the winner advancing to play Kentucky on Thursday.
Alabama is 16-11 and finished 2-10 in SEC play, but lost six matches by 4-3 scores. The way the sixth-year coach has it figured, two wins could take UA back to NCAA Tournament play.
“If we beat Auburn, beat Kentucky, we should be in the postseason,” he said.
It starts with Osama, a native of Cairo, Egypt, who is ranked No. 18 in singles with six wins over nationally-ranked opponents.
“I played a lot of junior tennis before I came here,” he said. “I played on the pro tour for a year. It’s different being on a team.
“Being one of the oldest guys, I’ve got to make sure I do everything mostly right. I’ve got to lead myself first to lead the team.”
Ortiz, a sophomore from Chihuahua, Mexico, who was named to the SEC Community Service Team this week, is ready to follow.
“Team dad, I would say. He sets a good example for us to work hard and the way he plays with intensity,” Ortiz said.
If Alabama had to participate in a play-in match the day before the rest of the tournament field opens competition, who better to do it against than Auburn? The Crimson Tide beat Auburn 4-0 earlier this season. The team’s old man understands the rivalry.
Said Osama, “You have your home crowd, playing against Auburn, there’s nothing better than that. You want to beat Auburn. They are one of our biggest rivals.
“I don’t want to lose to anyone in the world, certainly not to Auburn.”
Husack wants his youngsters to show their stuff as they play out this season, but he’s excited about the future.
“There are a lot of good things that have happened this year,” he said. “We had four players join us in January. They just need a full year together.
“We are playing at home. It’s a big advantage. There are a lot of people who have supported us weekend after weekend after weekend. Our players have seen the way they have followed us. It means something to them. They wear the jersey with pride.”
Reach Tommy Deas at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 205-722-0224.