Burnel, Salazar shine for UTRGV at WAC Tourney; Vaqueros have strong showing

HARLINGEN The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s men’s tennis team came into the WAC Tournament ranked last in the conference.

The Vaqueros played their conference opponents hard during the season and went into the WAC Tournament hopeful, said Emilien Burnel, UTRGV’s only senior and its No. 1.

UTRGV came out with a dominant win Thursday over Seattle 4-0 and came up just short of picking up an upset over the top-ranked team in the conference, UT Arlington, on Friday, falling 4-3 at the H-E-B Tennis Center.

“Obviously any time it ends in a loss it is a disappointment, but this team has had its battles over the year. Injuries and things like that,” UTRGV’s men’s tennis head coach Nathan Robinson said. “The guys have just put their heads down and fought.

“For them to be able to put that kind of effort against a team that beat us in the regular season and is the defending conference champions bodes well for what we have coming. I think the Southland should pay attention to what is coming,” Robinson added.

Burnel echoed his coach’s sentiment. Burnel said the team took the regular season to figure out what it is. Three of Burnel’s teammates did not join until January.

UTRGV’s Paolo Bonaguro celebrates against UT Arlington in the semifinals of the WAC Conference tournament at the H-E-B Tennis Center in Harlingen. (Andrew Cordero/Special to The Monitor)

UTRGV played its first match after the winter break on Jan. 13.

“When we won against Seattle 4-0 (on Thursday), we knew we could do it and we showed our courage,” Burnel said. “(On Friday), I think this was one of the times where our team had the most energy. Against Arlington, we lost 5-2 in the regular season, today we were ready to give everything we had.”

The match came down to freshman Ivo Isqueiro’s singles match. Isquerio battled back during the second set to force a third, and he battled back again in third when down 5-2 to make it 5-4, but he came up short in an attempt to send his team to the conference finals.

UTRGV was down 1-0 after doubles but picked up the first singles win with Burnel.

“It is important for me to get that point as the No. 1 player, to show my team that they can count on me,” Burnel said.

Burnel, from La Teste-De-Bush, France, said he played his best tennis the past two years in the Valley and that he is going to miss UTRGV.

Burnel easily dispatched UT Arlington’s Joan Torres Espinosa 6-3, 6-4. Burnel beat the WAC’s player of the year for the second time this season.

“We got to see Emi one last time and prove that he is the WAC player of the year,” Robinson said.

Robinson is going to miss Burnel, too.

“He has been the rock that started the major shift in the program,” Robinson said. “He will be irreplaceable, but we are hoping that the guys that come back next year continue to build his legacy.”

UTRGV sophomore and former McAllen Memorial standout Agustin Salazar won his singles match against UT Arlington and was leading his doubles match before Arlington rallied back to win the point. Salazar also won his singles match against Seattle.

UTRGV’s Agustin Salazar against UT Arlington in the semifinals of the WAC Conference tournament at the H-E-B Tennis Center in Harlingen. (Andrew Cordero/Special to The Monitor)

Salazar had an up-and-down season but caught some momentum coming into the tourney and had some home court advantage, having played at the tennis center since since he was young.

“I thought it was a good tournament on the personal side for me, but of course as a team we lost,” Salazar said.

Salazar also was impressed with how the team performed despite being an underdog every match.

“He definitely had an up-and-down, rocky year, but his talent is undeniable and his competitiveness is undeniable, and we got to see the Gus that we see every day in practice, in conference, so we are super excited to get him as an upperclassman and see how much more growth he has in him,” Robinson said.

Salazar won his match 6-4, 6-3. Paolo Bonaguro won the other point for the Vaqueros by winning his match 6-1, 6-4.

The WAC tournament championships conclude at 9 a.m. today at the H-E-B Tennis Center in Harlingen.

PHOTOS OF WAC Tourney by Andrew Cordero