Two years ago the Alabama men’s tennis team fell just short of making the NCAA Tournament and George Husack, the Crimson Tide’s coach, decided to blow the program up.
Husack cleaned house and started over, recruiting a bunch of players who are now freshmen and sophomores to built around Mazen Osama, the only remaining survivor of the purge.
Husack’s plan paid off Tuesday when Alabama received a bid to return to the national championship tournament for the first time since 2013, the coach’s first year. Alabama (18-12) will play Tulane (18-6), which has won 12 of its last 13 matches, on Friday, May 11, in Tallahassee, Fla. The winner will play the winner of the match between 12th-seeded Florida State and Alabama State.
“It felt unreal,” Husack said of seeing Alabama pop up on the NCAA bracket. “I remember back in 2013 and it was very exciting because it was the first year, but they weren’t my players that I had recruited here.
“We made a huge change a couple of years ago. We had guys transfer out and leave the program and we made a commitment … to create a new culture and whole new plan. So these are the guys. We told them this was what it’s like, and they had no idea what it’s like. It’s very satisfying.”
Husack sat down with Bill Battle, then UA’s athletics director, after the 2016 season to discuss his decision to rebuild.
Battle asked, “How are you going to replace these guys?”
Said Husack, “I just am.”
Alabama got off to a 14-0 start this season but lost seven of its first eight SEC matches. The turnaround began with an upset of Georgia, a traditional power and top 25-ranked program, The Crimson Tide defeated Auburn and 25th-ranked Kentucky in the SEC Tournament at the Alabama Tennis Stadium last week before losing narrowly to 21st-ranked Tennessee.
Those wins were enough to vault the Crimson Tide back into the postseason.
“You keep preaching, ‘Keep believing, keep believing,’ but ultimately wins create the belief,” Husack said. “But not one time did they fold, not one time did they throw in the towel.”
Osama is Alabama’s leader at No. 1, a nationally-ranked junior from Cairo, Egypt. He’s participated in NCAA postseason play as an individual, but now has a team going with him.
“I always wanted to go to NCAAs since I came to school here because that’s the biggest thing, honestly, to make it as a team,” he said. “We did it this year.
“My freshman year we were pretty close, we got just to the edge and we couldn’t make it, but this year we made it. We were struggling a little bit in the middle but the guys still believed and worked hard and we were able to pull it off.”
Edson Ortiz, a sophomore from Chihuahua, Mexico, was one of those brought in to change the culture.
“We all wanted it,” he said. “This year we had a lot of new guys and we taught them that we want it so bad and all the group poured it on for this to happen.
“We had a bad start in the SEC season but after that it made us tougher as a team and as individuals. We knew we needed to win to make it to NCAAs, but talking for myself I knew if we kept working hard on and off the court it would come to us.”
Alabama has time to absorb the accomplishment of making the tournament and turn its attention to playing its best tennis.
“I’m really grateful that we made it this far but we still have a lot to accomplish,” Osama said. “I mentioned to the guys that it’s great that we made it but there’s still a lot of things we can do.”
Reach Tommy Deas at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 205-722-0224.