Southern Indiana earned its first NCAA berth.
Southern Indiana Athletics

SURPRISE, Ariz. — A young man springs onto a tennis court in pursuit of a soccer ball.

The women’s team practicing on that court hardly notices, the young man retrieves the ball, and the Southern Indiana men’s tennis team proceeds with its favorite post-practice activity, off-court.

The joyful booting and hooting — a group soccer kick — symbolizes Southern Indiana’s landmark season. The Screaming Eagles are participating in the NCAA Division II Men’s Tennis Championship Round of 16 for the first time and will play UC San Diego at 1 p.m. ET on Wednesday.

The Surprise Tennis & Racquet Complex, in the Phoenix suburb of Surprise, Ariz., is hosting the 2013 men’s and women’s championship rounds. All eight Round of 16 matches for both tournaments will be played Wednesday, followed by quarterfinals on Thursday, semifinals on Friday and national championship matches on Saturday.

“We’ve always had good teams,” said Southern Indiana head coach Chris Crawford, an alumnus and former player. “We just weren’t able to get over the hump a little bit. We brought in a few guys that helped us, but this is more a team win first instead of individual. Tennis is normally known as more of an individual sport, but you can play it as a team sport.

“That’s what I’ve tried to instill in their heads a little bit and they’ve jumped on board with it.”

The Screaming Eagles earned their Round of 16 berth with a 5-0 victory against Ferris State in the Midwest Regional. They had secured their 2013 NCAA tournament invitation with a Great Lakes Valley Conference tournament title win (5-3) against Drury. For Crawford, a 2005 USI graduate in his fourth season as the men’s head coach, the latter was a huge stepping stone.

“We haven’t won our conference in eight years,” Crawford said. “We beat a top-20 team to do that. Getting to the Sweet 16, especially for me as a player at [USI], was always a dream for the program and we accomplished that this year. We’ve accomplished every goal that we set out in the beginning of the year. So that’s special, especially to the four seniors that’ll be leaving.”

Two of those four seniors are Ben Boesing and Juan Quiroz, the former of Floyds Knobs, Ind., and the latter of Valencia, Venezuela. They form the heart of Southern Indiana’s team and say their presence in Arizona is neither fluke nor curiosity.

“It’s huge for our program because in our region, there’s kind of been two teams that dominated — Northwood and Drury,” Boesing said. “They seem to come here most every year. I think it shows our program’s taken a step up to that level and we can compete with those programs and hopefully come back every year.”

“It’s been a really tough four years,” Quiroz said. “We were always the underdog in conference and regionals. Ben and I, the first year was probably the toughest…for both of us, because we didn’t have a really strong team and we pretty much had to win every time to get good results.

“This year actually has been kind of laid back more because from one to six, we’re a really strong team and we have a good chance here at the nationals to do something. We want to go more than just Sweet 16.”

There was a lot of screaming after the Eagles clinched their Round of 16 berth.

“Actually, I was playing the match that clinched it, and after I won that point, we all just huddled up and were yelling and excited,” Boesing said of the 5-0 waltz against Ferris State. “It was kind of weird, though, because we actually won really easy that day. All our matches in the past at regionals have been really, really tough, close matches. And we’ve lost a lot of tough matches like 5-4. We’ve had a couple we should’ve won and maybe made it here before.”

Aside from experience and his players’ grit, Crawford said Southern Indiana’s doubles play has been its strength. He switched up pairings on March 21st and the team hasn’t lost since; it enters Wednesday’s Round of 16 on a 12-match winning streak.

“If you have good doubles teams and you can win two or three doubles spots, it makes your singles matches a little more relaxed and maybe the other team will play with a little bit more pressure on them,” Crawford said.

Southern Indiana has played competitive DII tennis for some time, but has been unable to break into the NCAA tournament’s upper tier until this season.

“It’s a great key to them to finally get a conference championship and get to the Sweet 16,” Crawford said. “In the fall, we didn’t know how good we were going to be because we struggled, and the guys have really come out and worked hard and it’s with Juan [Quiroz] and Ben [Boesing] leading the team. That’s to their credit.”