By Jimmy Hyams
Someone once said that rules were made to be broken.
The Arkansas women’s tennis team didn’t break a rule, but it violated the spirit of the rule. And the NCAA needs to put a clamp on the loophole.
Arkansas was 10-16 after reaching the semifinals of the SEC Tournament held in Knoxville last week. The talented team failed to have success during the regular season, and failed to meet NCAA criteria to qualify: a .500 record.
After playing well in the SEC Tournament, Arkansas coach Micael Hegarty had an idea: Try to find someone to play six matches, sweep those matches and get to .500.
Hegarty found a willing participant in Tennessee State, which had a sparkling 1-8 record in the Ohio Valley Conference. Arkansas played Tennessee State six times in Nashville the weekend of the SEC tournament, taking the first five matches 4-0 then pulling out a 4-3 squeaker in the final battle.
That made Arkansas 16-16 and eligible for one of the roughly 30 at-large bids to the 64-team NCAA tournament.
Arkansas paid Tennessee State $15,000 for the matches. TSU’s women’s tennis budget is $27,652. Arkansas’ women’s tennis budget is about $300,000.
A couple of articles indicated Hegarty didn’t get approval from Arkansas’ administration for the TSU matches.
If that’s true, how did he get approval to pay $15,000?
We asked Tennessee women’s tennis coach Alison Ojeda her thoughts on the Arkansas situation.
“He (Hegarty) has a fantastic team and they made a run (to the semis) of the SEC Tournament (in Knoxville),’’ Ojeda said. “I hate he had to get six matches in one day. That’s a lot on the players. But he wants to be in the (NCAA tournament). I respect that.’’
The Arkansas-TSU matches started at 8 a.m. and finished at about 10 p.m. – close to a 14-hour day. That’s a lot of hours used up with a 20-hour NCAA rule in place.
Some have questioned the lineup Arkansas used. Some have questioned TSU players retiring during a match.
Is it a bad precedent if the NCAA selection committee to pick Arkansas?
“Good question,’’ Ojeda said. “To be honest, I’m not sure how I’d answer that. Our job is to prepare our team on the front end, not the back end (of the schedule) and not put student-athletes in a situation to play six matches in one day. But (what Arkansas did) is within the rules.’’
Ojeda is on the ITA operating committee, which sets rules and policies.
“This is 100 percent something we’ll discuss and I guarantee, there will be a lot of conversation,’’ Ojeda said. “A lot of coaches do not want this going forward.’’
If the NCAA doesn’t step in, the SEC should.
The SEC says “it just means more.’’
It should also mean more to do things within the spirit of the rules.
In this case, Arkansas should not be rewarded for its “ingenuity’’ by the NCAA selection committee.
The NCAA will announce the field today at 5 p.m. Tennessee, which is ranked No. 38, is expected to get a two or three seed and play in the University of North Carolina regional.
Meanwhile, UT freshman Chelsea Sawyer of Clemmons, N.C., is transferring to Penn State in an effort to get playing time. UT has already given her a release.
That has left a spot open on the roster for the senior-less UT women’s team.