TIDE DOUBLES TEAM MAKES HISTORY WITH NCAA TOURNAMENT RUN

Hours before Mazen Osama and Patrick Kaukovalta competed in the 2019 NCAA men’s doubles championship match, the players and their coaches entered the familiar building that had become a second home during their time in Orlando.

The dark interior and laid-back ambiance that greeted them inside Trick Shots billiards club was a sharp contrast to the bright Florida sun and intense atmosphere that they’d be facing later that day. Osama and Kaukovalta started a game of pool with head coach George Husack. It was the last of many games that the three had played during the week.

Playing pool at Trick Shots had not only become a part of the duo’s daily routine, it was also an integral part of their historic run in the NCAA doubles tournament. Billiards was the perfect way for them to mentally unwind before they’d have to lock in for a couple of tough sets.

Although Osama and Kaukovalta weren’t able to hand UCLA’s doubles team its first loss of the season, losing 6-3, 6-4 in the final on May 25, they’d already cemented their legacy as the first Alabama doubles pair to advance to the title match in program history.

A few games of pool every day before the match was part of Husack’s strategy to keep everything regimented during Osama and Kaukovalta’s run.

“We had the same routine every day and it involved going to this grimy dive billiards place called Trick Shots and we’d go there and shoot pool in between meals and practice sessions,” Husack said. “It was pretty funny.”

Shooting pool wasn’t the only thing that Husack and his players repeated day after day. They also went to the same stores, restaurants and even ate the exact same food. Husack believed that keeping things monotonous allowed Osama and Kaukovalta to worry less about trivial matters and enjoy the moment.

“It was pretty uncanny,” Husack said. “You just keep it to where you don’t think about it so you can take in the moment, which was the competition and [Osama and Kaukovalta] thrived in it.”

The duo was also aided by an unexpected break from tennis when Alabama was knocked out of the NCAA team championships on May 3 by South Florida. Since the doubles competition didn’t begin until May 21, Osama and Kaukovalta were able to step away from the game for a few days to recharge and reset.

“We got a little rest,” Kaukovalta said. “Five days or something where we didn’t do anything.”

Husack canceled formal practice for a week in order to keep the duo from being physically and mentally exhausted after a long season.

Then it was back to work. Even though the season was over for the rest of the team, Edson Ortiz and Jeremy Gschwendtner stuck around campus and served as training partners. Husack also switched their practice method, transitioning to a quality over quantity approach.

The result was a fresh and ready doubles team come match time. The rest paid off immediately, especially since Osama and Kaukovalta were competing against some players who were still taxed from a long season and playing longer in the team and singles competition.

“That definitely played to our advantage,” Husack said. “We were fresher. We took a week off. When we got back, I was thinking about taking a couple of days off after our team finished and then I decided we’d take a week off. I think everyone needed to just transition to a new season, not something where we’re still thinking about the team. We all needed a fresh start.”

Osama and Kaukovalta didn’t drop a set while storming through the bracket, beating Arizona State, North Carolina, Wichita State and Mississippi State in four consecutive days. The key for the Crimson Tide was breaking their opponents’ serve early in matches.

“The first match we played really well and got an early break and then the first few matches after that we were similar,” Osama said. “We were really focused and got the break early on and that was what put us on the winning side.”

Alabama’s deep run in the tournament wasn’t Osama’s first. He advanced to the round of 16 in last year’s singles championships. However, his run with Kaukovalta was the first time he found success in postseason doubles play.

“Every time I played in the NCAA doubles I didn’t have good results,” Osama said. “I think I lost first round both years so I’m thankful that me and PK had the opportunity this year to make it to the final. It was obviously something special.”

Reaching the doubles final was the last accomplishment in Osama’s storied collegiate career. The graduating senior compiled 141 victories in singles and doubles, earned All-American honors for his junior campaign and became the highest ranked Crimson Tide player ever by being ranked No. 8 at the end of the 2018 season.

“If we come across another Mazen Osama in my time here than that’d be great,” Husack said. “They don’t happen often. There’s just certain things he did from a talent base that you couldn’t comprehend and couldn’t teach.”

Kaukovalta, meanwhile, will return for his junior season next year, with his sights set on making more history – only, he’ll try to do it with a new doubles partner.

Categories: Alabama, Sports