Homecoming awaits three Huskies at Pac-12 championships

Matt Stith is one of three Huskies who will be making a Southern California homecoming this weekend when the UW plays in the Pac-12 champpionships in Ojai, Calif. Photo by Sang Cho

When Kyle McMorrow committed to the UW as a junior in high school, he agreed to come back to his roots.

But every year around this time, the UW junior who was born in Olympia, Wash., goes back to his other home.

McMorrow moved from the northwest to Ojai, Calif., when he was 10 years old. Now, as the No. 22-ranked player in the nation, he leads the No. 26 Washington men’s tennis team into the inaugural Pac-12 Team Championships today as the tournament’s No. 5 seed, facing off against No. 8 seed Arizona today at 10 a.m., on the very courts on which his tennis adventure began.

“I took my first lesson at Libbey Park, where the main site is,” McMorrow said. “The courts I play the Pac-12 matches on are the courts that I basically grew up playing on, so it’s really an amazing feeling going back every year.”

The Huskies aren’t just going into their first postseason tournament this weekend; they’ll also be diving headfirst into the biggest amateur tennis gathering in the nation. The Ojai Valley Tennis Tournament is a five-day tennis festival with more than 100 years of history that includes juniors, small colleges, and an open draw. But the event is always headlined by the men’s and women’s Pac-12 Championships.

For the UW’s three Southern California natives — McMorrow, senior Matthew Stith, and freshman Jeff Hawke — the tournament known simply as “The Ojai” is a special one.

“It’s unbelievable,” said Stith, a Santa Barbara, Calif., native. “I grew up going to the tournament, so it’s a really exciting time. It’s just about living in the moment when you’re there.”

Hawke has already had some success in Ojai. He took home titles in the boys’ California Interscholastic Federation doubles draw in his junior and senior years at Palos Verdes High School, a school located about two hours south of Ojai.

The Ojai runs through McMorrow’s veins, literally. His grandfather, William E. Huffman, was a former president of the tournament, and the Pac-10 men’s singles trophy was named in his honor.

Despite boasting more than 100 years of history and names of tennis legends like Pete Sampras, Michael Chang, and Arthur Ashe among its alumni, the Ojai features something new this year: the first Pac-12 team tournament. In previous years, the only championship competition was among individuals.

“I’m pretty excited about it,” UW head coach Matt Anger said of the new format. “I think the focus at this time of the year has come around to the team matches, and that’s where we are right now.”

If the Huskies get by Arizona today — the team they swept two weeks ago in Seattle — they’ll face fourth-seeded California on Thursday. The Bears blanked the Huskies in Berkeley, Calif., three weeks ago as the UW struggled with the windy conditions in the Bay Area. But things have changed since then. After starting Pac-12 play 0-4, the Huskies are now riding a three-match winning streak into Ojai, which has done wonders for a UW team that was at rock bottom.

“We had a little bit of a rough patch,” McMorrow said. “But now we got the last three, all of them fairly routinely, so I think we’re feeling good about ourselves and our chances.”

For McMorrow and his fellow Southern Californians, this week is a trip back home. But they’ll have to wait four days to see if it will end up being home sweet home.

Reach reporter Thuc Nhi Nguyen at sports@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @thucnhi21

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