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By Michael Eldridge | @DFWSportsMike
NEW ORLEANS - For the first time since 2006, UT Arlington men's tennis raises a conference championship trophy after downing South Alabama 4-1 in the Sun Belt finals on Sunday at the Pepsi Tennis Center.
The Mavericks, the fifth seed in the tournament, capped their memorable journey throughout the bracket with a dominating performance in singles play to clinch their position in the NCAA Tournament. Along the way, UTA had to pull three upsets as it downed No. 4 Louisiana, No. 1 Georgia State and finally No. 2 South Alabama.
"I was so happy for the kids," UT Arlington coach Diego Benitez said. "They worked so hard from Day 1. Being able to win this title is just an amazing memory. I am so proud of every single player. They have worked so hard on and off the court."
With the win, the Mavericks set a new all-time wins record as they improved to 18-10 overall. The title is UTA's first as a member of the Sun Belt Conference with the previous coming in the Southland Conference.
"These kids are going to be in the history books forever," Benitez said. "It is just an amazing feeling. They will be able to go back in their elder years and see this season. It was a united team effort and potentially one of the best teams in UT Arlington history."
Junior Mario Muniesa, the match winner, was quick to point out it was not just the student-athletes on the court who deserved credit.
"Thank you to all of the coaches," Muniesa said. "They were one of the most important parts of this big win. They have been pushing us and believing in us. They also deserve the credit. It is not just about nine guys on our team, it is about our coaches too."
UTA's path to the championship didn't prove as easy as the score indicated, as doubles was a hard-fought battle that went in the Jaguars' way. Carlos Arbiza and Mauricio Del Rio grabbed an early 6-2 win at the No. 2 position. After dropping doubles at No. 3, Daniel Armengol and Jhonathan Gonzalez were locked in a tiebreak. Having missed out on an opportunity to clinch the point, the Mavs were on the wrong end of a 9-7 tiebreak.
South Alabama (15-12) didn't hold the momentum long however, as UTA flexed its muscle in the opening set of singles play across the board to win all six first sets.
Del Rio and Arbiza each sailed to two-set victories that was followed by a third point from Gonzalez to bring the Mavericks within just one point of the clincher.
The final point seemed to be in doubt in the final three matches as South Alabama pulled ahead in all three.
Guanarteme Nuez and Armengol were each pushed to the third set - Armengol falling in a tiebreak in the second. All eyes then closed in on No. 3 singles between Muniesa and USA's Olivier Gingras. Muniesa breezed through the first set with a 6-4 win, but was down early in the second. Muniesa powered through to earn a 6-5 lead after breaking serve.
With Nuez having been broken at No. 1 and down two games, the pressure mounted for Muniesa to close it out. The junior stepped up to the pressure to clinch the win as his teammates stormed in around him.
"I just decided to go for a big serve and he missed on the return," Muniesa said. "I was extremely happy. We were all celebrating and it was just ecstasy."
The Mavericks will await the release of the NCAA Tournament bracket to learn its first-round opponent.
MT: Schedule set for Maverick men
MT: Nuez and Del Rio featured in ITA Fall Rankings
TN: Brunicardi named to UTA tennis staff
MT: Mavs complete strong ITA Regionals
MT: Fall slate culminates in ITA Texas Regional
TN: Big weekend ahead for UTA tennis