Simon Labbe - 2020

Sophomore tennis player Simon Labbe on the court earlier in his collegiate career.

With nine regular season matches left to play for the East Carolina University men’s tennis team, the Pirates were informed they would no longer be playing this season. While on what was supposed to be a spring break road trip that took the Pirates to three different California cities in three days, the team found themselves in the middle of the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic here in the United States.

Rain would postpone the first match of the trip, a heavyweight matchup against 12-5 University of California, Riverside on March 10, but the Pirates would be lucky enough to squeak in their March 11 neutral site matchup against Bucknell University at the University of California, San Diego’s facilities. After the quick 7-0 sweep of the Bison, the Pirates made their way to the University of California, Irvine.

Before play began between UC Irvine and ECU, word of spring sports cancellations had gotten out and the match was canceled. Typically, all we can do is watch, but due to the unfortunate set of cards we’ve been dealt this season, all we can do is imagine, watch old highlights, argue amongst friends and probably overthink it all anyway. Sports fans across the board are likely at home right now, picking apart rosters and schedules as best they can in an effort to justify their take on how the season would have played out.

The Pirates closed out the shortened season with a stout 11-2 record. Their two losses this season were a tight 3-4 loss to St. John's University, a team that finished 13-2, and a 1-6 loss to Virginia Commonwealth University who closed out the year at 8-3. With this in mind, let’s do some imagining.

The Pirates remaining opponents finished with a total record of 64-59, six of the nine remaining opponents finished with records above .500 and three squads tallied 11 or more wins. The overall record for remaining opponents gets a 63-39 facelift if you exclude 1-15 conference foe, University of Connecticut.

“We play a lot of teams that have great schedules so they maybe on paper don’t seem like they’re doing as well as they are,” ECU head coach Shawn Heinchon said on evaluating opponents based on schedule alone.

Rain permitting, the Pirates would have rolled through UC Riverside with ease. Led by the youthful pairing of sophomore Diogo Marques and freshman Frederico Masetti, the Pirates made it a point all season to earn the early point and put opponents away early. The Pirates doubles teams tallied an overall record of 42-20 on the season, compared to Riverside’s 22-17. Success in doubles gives the Pirates the advantage over UC Riverside.

The third match of the spring break trip and the second to be canceled, against 5-3 UC Irvine. There isn’t much to say about UC Irvine when on the outside looking in. They played only eight games before the season’s cancellation and were absolutely rolled by No. 17 University of California, Los Angeles as UCLA took down Irvine opponents in two sets and only allowed a single doubles pairing a victory in the 4-0 sweep.

The Pirates just have more firepower than the anteaters and are more battle tested to this point of the season. The only way I see the Pirates taking a loss here is if the fatigue of the road trip got the best of them.

After the series of matches played in California, the Pirates would have returned home to face off with 7-4 College of William & Mary on March 20. The Tribe are the first repeat opponent for the Pirates from just a year ago on the remainder of this season’s schedule.

“Everyone’s a year better, everyone’s getting better and some of the matches were at home a year ago that would be on the road this year and vice versa,” Heinchon said.

William & Mary convincingly handled the Pirates last season as it won 4-1 and allowed just one Pirate to reach a third set in singles. With the Pirates returning just three players who saw action against the Tribe last season and the Tribe returning all six who played against the Pirates in singles, I think the Pirates return home to a loss against William & Mary.

The match against William & Mary would have been just the first of a three match home stretch. Following the Tribe, ECU would have hosted the University of North Carolina at Greensboro on March 25. The Spartans finished the season at 5-5 and shared a pair of opponents with Pirates on the season.

Both teams saw victories over Winthrop University, the Pirates a 7-0 sweep and the Spartans a 5-2 home victory. The difference between the two squads comes against the United States Naval Academy. East Carolina defeated the Midshipmen in its third match of the season while UNCG lost 3-4 despite blowing the midshipmen out of the water in doubles.

Regardless of what the Spartans showed in doubles against Navy, their season numbers left much to be desired as they sported just a 15-13 overall record for their doubles teams. The Pirates effectiveness against same opponents compared to UNCG’s lack thereof gives the Pirates the advantage, especially considering their 6-1 victory over the Spartans in Greensboro last season.

For the last home match before hitting the road again, the Pirates were scheduled to play 7-6 College of Charleston on March 29. Oddly enough, a match between the two schools was scheduled for last season, but that match was also canceled.

Both squads faced off against the University of North Carolina at Asheville on their home courts and both came up with drastically different results. East Carolina rolled through UNCA 6-1 while the Cougars lost 2-5. This matchup is an easy victory for the Pirates in my eyes.

Scheduled for Apr. 3, the Pirates would have made a trip to Wichita State University to take on a very talented Shockers team that finished 12-5 on the season. The Shockers played the majority of their season on the road or at a neutral site including a 3-4 loss against then ranked no. 18 University of Tennessee. Coming up against a team like the Shockers who were deprived of home games all season and saw their home court just three times before the season’s cancellation, the Pirates lost their fourth match to a formidable opponent in Wichita State.

For their last road match of the season, the Pirates were set to visit 11-5 Southern Methodist University on April 4. The Mustangs swept the Pirates 4-0 last season in the first round of the American Athletic Conference Championship. This season, I believe would have been more of the same as SMU returned this season with all six doubles players from last season’s matchup and were missing just one singles player from last season’s lineup.

Back at home on April 10, the Pirates would have faced off with 4-6 University of Richmond. Early in the season the Pirates participated in the Richmond Fall Tournament where players from both squads played a lot of tennis against a lot of different schools. There were eight different singles matches where a Pirate faced off against a Spider and it came out to an even 4-4 split. There was one doubles match where the teams crossed paths, the Pirates won that single occurrence.

Early in the season these two squads may have been evenly matched, but each school’s performance against Navy proves ECU has an edge over Richmond. As previously mentioned, the Pirates sank the Midshipmen 4-3. Richmond did not fare as well, losing 1-6 to Navy.

After a win against Richmond, the Pirates would have gladly welcomed 1-15 Uconn on April 12 to close out their regular season. Uconn just wasn’t very good this season at all, but to add a bit of evidence as to why the Pirates would have likely swept the Huskies, both schools matched up with Bucknell this season. While the Pirates swept the Bison across the board 7-0, the Huskies lost 3-4.

As easy as it is to pick and choose winners and losers based on statistics and records, sports do not exist in a vacuum and we have to remember that there are a number of factors that must be played out on the court or field, under rain or shine.

“It’s really hard to tell and what is unbelievably difficult to predict is how healthy we would be playing some of those matches and/or how healthy some of those teams we would have been playing against would have been as well,” Heinchon said regarding how unpredictable a season can be.

Had the Pirates and the rest of the nation been fortunate enough to play out the rest of this regular season, ECU would have finished a very respectable 17-5. This is a mark that I think a lot of teams would love to hit, but this Pirate squad has a lot more room for growth as they are loaded with youth and talent across the board and sport only one senior in Javier Renones.

This Pirate tennis roster is set to explode next season. Be on the lookout when ECU men’s tennis returns for the 2020-2021 season.

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