SURPRISE, Ariz. — For the first time since 2003, Lander has re-entered an arena it once dominated — the NCAA Division II Men’s Tennis Championship.

This week’s title round at the Surprise Tennis & Racquet Complex in suburban Phoenix is both affirmation and proving ground for the Bearcats, who made national championship tournaments their playgrounds in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Ten years later, they’re back in the game, and, off to a successful start. Ranked ninth nationally, they defeated No. 16 Cameron in Wednesday’s Round of 16 and will face No. 6 Concordia in Thursday’s quarterfinals.

“We didn’t play unbelievable but we played OK,” Lander head coach Brett Simpson said. “Once we settled into the match, we played very well.”

The Bearcats swept all three doubles matches against Cameron. Victories at No. 4 and No. 6 singles clinched the match.

Regardless of their ultimate 2013 fate, the Bearcats’ breakthrough came in their Southeast Regional final victory against Columbus State on April 28. Often wearied by competition in the powerful Peach Belt Conference, only to be tripped up in NCAA tournament regional play, Lander finally powered past what had become a deep pothole.

“My first three years at Lander, we lost in the regional final each year,” Simpson said. “You just lose to good teams. There’s no guarantee of getting through. It’s really hard. We’ve been in that position a few times and we finally got the job done this time.”

Lander won eight consecutive Division II men’s titles from 1993-2000. The men’s team also won 1991 and '92 NAIA titles before moving to Division II in '93.

Simpson, a former Lander player, was a three-time All-American and member of four consecutive championship teams (1991-94). Now in his eighth season as his alma mater’s head coach, his goal has been to reignite the same success he knew.

“I think what happened was after a period of time other teams got better to try to compete with Lander,” Simpson said. “They had to. It got to a point where around the early 2000s is when it started happening. Some of the other schools really, really stepped it up and you started to look at maybe four or five, six schools were at that level that could win a championship, where in the 90s, it was only maybe two or three.”

Per their head coach, the present Bearcats are a gifted bunch. All six top players returned for 2012-13, coming off last season’s final No. 8 Intercollegiate Tennis Association ranking, and Simpson sensed that this year could be special.

Perhaps the most poignant story belongs to the only senior and top singles player, Paul-Henri Arrigoni from Bordeaux, France. Arrigoni is playing with torn meniscus and a sprained ligament in his left knee; his limp from the players’ hospitality tent following Wednesday’s NCAA victory was partly due to the massive ice bag strapped to the joint.

An evasive move during a February doubles match incurred the damage, although Arrigoni says he likely first aggravated the meniscus last summer. In that February match, he had to dive to avoid a direct hit by an opponent’s return shot.

“I tried to go on the ground so I wouldn’t get the ball in my face and I heard a little crack,” said Arrigoni, an All-American. “I kept playing because that was the end of the doubles and we really needed to win that match.”

He creaked through his singles match afterward, losing because of his restricted movement. In the days that followed, a tour of doctors, athletic trainers and an MRI confirmed the extent of the injury. Arrigoni was forced to miss a month.
Once he returned, cortisone injections were necessary. Fittingly, it was his No. 1 singles match against Columbus State that clinched Lander’s regional final victory.

“We’ve had to adjust his practicing and everything around this injury in order to have him ready to play,” Simpson said. “He won that final match at the regional final and he’s the guy with the most experience, so it’s been a great way for him to end his career.”

“I gave my heart on that match,” Arrigoni said. “It was the last set. Everybody was watching. It was my senior year and I gave everything for the team.”

Simpson says the team reciprocated before Arrigoni returned. Knowing their leader was hurting, other Bearcats kept what could be a dream season, alive.

“We had to play a month without him so guys stepped up and we didn’t miss a beat during that month,” Simpson said. “We kept winning and kept doing the things we needed to do to get here, so we really stepped up as a team.”

“We don’t have really one leader,” Arrigoni said. “But it’s always like trying to help each other in every way. Of course, if I win my match because I’m number one, it means everybody can win after. I’m probably more the leader in that way.”