Rankings-wise, the best of the Tennessee men's athletic teams will finally begin their season this weekend.
The sixth-ranked Volunteer tennis team – according to the Intercollegiate Tennis Association rankings – will take to the court Saturday inside the Goodfriend Tennis Center, kicking off the spring schedule against Tennessee Tech (10 a.m.) and Eastern Kentucky (2 p.m.).
The men's squad returns four starters – Mikelis Libietis, Hunter Reese, Jarryd Chaplin and Brandon Fickey – and welcome four newcomers to a team that won 26 matches last year and made it to the NCAA team quarterfinals.
Reese ranks No. 16 in singles competition after he finished 12-6 this fall and defeated two top-10 opponents. He will also continue to play alongside Libietis – the reigning SEC Player of the Year – as the No. 1 ranked doubles team in the country.
The duo finished the fall season with an 11-2 record and won their first national title at the ITA All-American Championships back in October.
With so much momentum coming into the spring from the fall and last season, both coaches and players are anxiously anticipating kicking the team season off.
"The wait is over," head coach Sam Winterbotham said. "I think you just get tired of working out. You actually want to compete against somebody other than yourself. It's been a long time for us to wait to get to this first match.
"Tennis-wise we're ready, certainly emotionally we're ready to get this season going."
For the junior All-American and All-SEC player, Reese, the new season is a culmination of everything the team has been working for.
"It feels like we spend the whole fall training and doing the individual stuff and finally it's going to mean something," Reese said.
With so much talent on the squad, Winterbotham said he expects the team to get better every day from competing with each other.
"We're a tough team and I expect our team to be tough on the court in practice," Winterbotham said. "I expect them to be the toughest competitors when they go out in their matches."
While players like Reese and Libietis may get most of the attention, Winterbotham admitted he still expects his seniors to lead the team.
"Sometimes that's a cliché relying on seniors to be the heart and soul of your team," Winterbotham said. "We have Colton Norton and Jarryd Chaplin who really are the heart and soul of our team. They are our leaders. They're leading our workouts. They understand the dynamics within the team, what needs to be said, who needs to be supported, who needs to be ripped. This season is all about them."
While individuals on the team have succeeded in the past, Reese said he believes his teammates – and himself – are capable of much more.
"The last time we won the SEC was the year before I got here and the last time we made the NCAA finals was that same year," Reese said. "This team has never really done anything to be cocky about. There is always that motivation. We can do better."