The Rattlers tennis team’s dominance under head coach Carl Goodman is turning the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference into a two-team race once again.
Conference-leader South Carolina State (13-2, 3-1 MEAC) would prefer to keep that from happening.
Florida A&M (12-8, 3-1 MEAC) looks to break the Bulldogs’ 11-match winning streak when the rivals meet for the first time since last season’s conference championship Saturday afternoon at the FAMU Tennis Complex.
The Bulldogs, winners of the last seven conference crowns, trounced the Rattlers 4-2 during the championship finals.
The Rattlers, who rank No. 76 in the nation, are riding an impressive streak of their own this season with three-straight conference victories.
But the matchup’s implications do not stop there, as the winner would clinch first place in the conference’s southern division. The Bulldogs, who rank No. 66 in the nation, currently claim the top spot, while the Rattlers follow closely in second place.
Goodman said he is aware of all that is at stake this weekend and that a victory over the Bulldogs would give the Rattlers momentum during the conference championship, which begins April 12 at the Millbrook Tennis Center in Raleigh, N.C.
“Both of us are the two strongest teams coming in from the MEAC,” Goodman said. “We both are also in the same region, so the outcome will determine who No.1 is in the south. Two weeks later, we have the conference championship. So it would be nice to defeat them during the regular season to gain an advantage over them during the championship.”
FAMU will return to action following a hectic two-week schedule, which included five grueling matches. The Rattlers secured a 4-1 record during that span, including back-to-back victories against conference-rivals North Carolina Central (5-1) and Maryland Eastern Shore (7-0).
To prepare for Saturday’s contest, Goodman said he gave his players a few off days during the week before they returned to practice to strengthen fundamentals.
“We sort of rested the guys. Two weeks before, we had a busy schedule,” Goodman said. “We played five matches within those two weeks. So for the most part, we gave them much needed rest for a few days this week. Then we just worked on the basics such as serves and returns. Those are the two key things for us.”
Chidi Gabriel, who claims an notable 13-7 record for FAMU in singles play, said the Bulldogs’ imposing record does not faze the Rattlers and that a victory would “send a big message” to conference competitors.
“Where they (Bulldogs) stand in the MEAC doesn’t hold any value to us,” Gabriel said. “But any win over a conference team sends a big message to them and all the other conference teams, especially with the championship around the corner.”
Co-captain Salif Kante, who leads the team with a 15-5 record in singles play, said SCSU is no different from other teams FAMU has dominated this season and that it has moved on from its championship defeat last season.
“SCSU is a team just like other teams,” Kante said. “Yes, FAMU lost the MEAC finals last year, but this is a new year. We have different players and new objectives. The mindset is to go out there and compete like champions and protect our house.”