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Oct. 16, 2013

COLUMBIA, S.C. – University of South Carolina men’s tennis opens play in its final fall tournament Thursday at the ITA Carolina Regional in Cary, N.C. The event features singles and doubles brackets that include entries from NCAA Division I schools throughout North and South Carolina. Seven Gamecocks will compete in singles, and three doubles teams will participate in the event, which runs through Monday. The singles and doubles winners advance to the USTA/ITA National Indoor Intercollegiate Championships in November.

While the regional event annually closes out the Gamecocks’ fall campaign, this season’s schedule will give the team a different mindset. In its first two tournaments, South Carolina battled against the nation’s elite in the SEC Fall Classic and the ITA All-American Championships. This week’s return to the regional event will have a slightly different feel, especially for the Gamecocks’ two newcomers.

“In the past, the regional has been our biggest tournament of the fall, but with the team coming off the year we had last year and the freshmen we brought in, I wanted them to play elite talent right away to make them aware of what the level is out there,” South Carolina head coach Josh Goffi said. “Still, we are trying not to worry about results this fall. We’ve made a big-time commitment to development and really get after it in a serious way with a lot of the guys. [Assistant coach] Ryan [Young] has been a major asset on the court in that area, and we’ve really been going deep into their games right now to rebuild them to the highest possible level. It’s been tough because they feel they should be winning more, so it will be interesting to see how they do at this event.”

Gamecock senior Tsvetan Mihov will lead the team into the regional, carrying a No. 14 national ranking and All-America status from his strong finish to last season. This fall, Mihov is 4-3 with three of those victories coming over nationally-ranked opponents, including the nation’s 24th-ranked player. He reached the quarterfinals of the SEC Fall Classic to open the season.

Freshman Andrew Schafer enters the tournament with a team-high six victories, buoyed by his march through pre-qualifying at the ITA All-American Championships. After closing the SEC Fall Classic with a three-set comeback against the nation’s 39th-ranked player, the Hilton Head, S.C., product dominated early in pre-qualifying and gutted out back-to-back three-set wins to earn a spot in the qualifying round at All-Americans.

“Andrew is a proven winner,” Goffi said. “He’s won since the day he picked up a racquet, but now we’re asking him to play a way that is going to carry him through to a higher level. It’s ups and downs right now, but every day is a step forward, and he has made a commitment. He trusts that the game plan we’re giving him is the best way to get the development and results he wants.”

Three other Gamecocks bring three singles wins into the weekend. Senior Chip Cox played well at the SEC Fall Classic, advancing to the consolation semifinals. He was solid in the qualifying draw at All-Americans but fell in three tiebreaks that decided his two matches. Junior Thiago Pinheiro won three matches at the SEC Fall Classic before pulling out of the consolation quarterfinals at the event. Freshman Sam Swank is 3-4 on the season but has taken four of his matches to three sets and shown flashes of the game Goffi and Young are working to hone for his future.

“Sam is an extremely good athlete, so he adapts to whoever is across the net very well,” Goffi said. “His level rises with the player across the net, which is a good sign for his growth and his high end. We’re working on him sustaining a certain level no matter who he is playing.”

Junior Kyle Koch jumped out to a good start at the SEC Fall Classic, knocking off the No. 39 player in the country to reach the round of 16, but struggled at the ITA All-American Championships. He will be looking to get back on track this week and close the fall well. Junior Ben Barnette will try to build on a pair of wins in consolation play at the SEC Fall Classic as well.

“I’m happy with the way the team is playing this fall,” Goffi said. “They’re putting themselves in a position to win, which is all we can ask. Coming up short happens sometimes, especially when you’re playing a guy that may be in a higher slot come spring. But, we’re trying to give everyone their chance to break through, and I think we’re due for some breakthroughs.”

Those could come in the doubles bracket as the Gamecocks bring a pair of ranked tandems into the regional this week. Cox/Koch entered the season in the No. 24 spot, while the newly-formed team of Mihov/Pinheiro are tied for No. 32. Both are among the tournament’s top seven seeds receiving a first-round bye.

“This is the first time we feel like we have two solid teams playing in the fall,” Goffi said. “The last three years, we’ve been piecing teams together in the fall and not stuck with them in the spring. Right now, we have two very good teams that are starting to click and really get to know each other. We’re looking to do some damage in doubles at this tournament for the first time.”

Cox and Koch advanced to the semifinals for the SEC Fall Classic to open the fall, riding the wave of their title at the ITA National Collegiate Summer Championships. The duo dropped a tough tiebreak in the SEC semifinal to the nation’s 13th-ranked tandem. A tiebreak ended their run in the ITA All-American Championships as well.

Mihov and Pinheiro scored a pair of wins in the qualifying round of the ITA All-American Championship before moving into the main draw despite falling in a tiebreak in the final round of qualifying. The lucky losers’ entry drew the nation’s No. 3 team in the opening round to fall into the consolation bracket, where a tiebreak against the No. 15 team in the country ended their tournament.

Thursday’s action will include the first two rounds of singles, beginning at 8:30 a.m. Doubles will kick off at 9 a.m. Friday with third-round singles closing out the day’s play. Team will play second-round doubles on Saturday morning and finish with two rounds of singles. Sunday morning’s 10 a.m. start included doubles quarter and semifinal matches and singles semifinals. Both finals will be on Sunday with play starting at 10 a.m.

South Carolina Matchups

First Round (Thursday)

Thiago Pinheiro (SC) vs. Tamina Kienka (NC Central) 8:30 a.m.
Andrew Schafer (SC) vs. Jacob Behal (Furman) 8:30 a.m.
Chip Cox (SC) vs. Jamal Hoyte (NC Central) 10 a.m.
Kyle Koch (SC) vs. Robert Dudley (Clemson) 10 a.m.
Ben Barnette (SC) vs. Daniil Gerasimov (NC Central) 11 a.m.
Sam Swank (SC) vs. Stephan Charles-Donatien (NC Central) 12:30 p.m.
(14) Tsvetan Mihov (SC) vs. Matt Browne (Furman) 12:30 p.m.

First Round (Friday)

Schafer/Swank (SC) vs. Cale Hammond/DJ McCall (Duke) 10 a.m.>br? (24) Cox/Koch (SC) – Bye
(32) Mihov/Pinheiro (SC) – Bye

Second Round (Friday)
(24) Cox/Koch (SC) vs. TBA 11 a.m.
(32) Mihov/Pinheiro (SC) vs. TBA 11 a.m.