By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Never in his nine seasons as UVa men’s tennis coach has Brian Boland publicly expressed a lack of confidence in one of his teams. He has been unfailingly upbeat as he’s built one of the nation’s premier programs.
But Boland, whose record at Virginia is a staggering 238-43, shared a secret the other day after his team clinched a spot in the NCAA tournament’s round of 16 for the seventh straight season.
“Over the years I’ve had a lot of teams where I was a little worrisome about this guy or that guy, and certainly you’re not going to tell the media that,” Boland said Sunday at Memorial Gym.
“But I can honestly tell you: I do not have one worry. I truly believe in this team. There’s not a single guy that I don’t believe in and isn’t ready to get the job done. These guys want it, they understand it and they know how to go about it. Quite frankly, they’re in a good place. They really have been around the block enough times. They’ve learned their lessons. They’re smart young men. They’re well-prepared, and Athens is going to be a lot of fun.”
To capture their first NCAA title, the Cavaliers must win four more matches. The first comes Friday, when top-seeded UVa (37-1) takes on No. 16 seed Duke (20-8) at noon in Athens, Ga.
This will be these ACC rivals’ third meeting in 2010. In the regular season, the Wahoos edged the Blue Devils 4-3 in Durham on April 14. Eleven days later, in the ACC tournament final, UVa won 4-2 in Cary, N.C.
“We have a lot of respect for Duke,” Boland said Sunday afternoon. “It’s going to be a challenge for us, but we have some time to prepare now. We know what we’re getting into, and the team’s playing their best tennis of the year so far.
“Again, I still think we can take it another level up. If we do, that’s all we can ask for.”
This is the third consecutive year UVa entered the NCAAs as the No. 1 seed. The ‘Hoos have won three straight titles at the Intercollegiate Tennis Association team indoor championships, but they’ve yet to advance past the semifinals at the NCAA tournament.
Virginia fell in the NCAA quarterfinals in 2005, ’06 and ’09. In 2007 and ’08, UVa was ousted in the semifinals.
“There’s few coaches in the country that have been through this at this level as consistently as I have, particularly over the past decade,” Boland said. “I think there’s some things that I’ve learned that are going to carry us through, hopefully, the next few days as we prepare, and certainly some things that I’m going to talk to the team about. I hope those things pay off.
“What people do, I think, is they go through processes and gain experiences and make mistakes, as well as do things well. We want to take the things that we do well and continue to do them, but also learn from some of the mistakes I thought we made over the past, and continue to learn. And I think if we do that, we’re going to be in the right place.”
The Cavaliers rarely have looked sharper than in their matches last weekend at the Snyder Tennis Center. Virginia opened the NCAA tourney by whipping Navy 4-0, then crushed ACC foe Wake Forest by the same score Sunday.
“I think we’re in a great spot right now, and as a team we’re really excited and ready to go in Athens,” said junior Michael Shabaz, who plays No. 1 singles and, with sophomore Drew Courtney, No. 1 doubles.
Boland said: “I was really pleased with how we played. I thought we came out with a lot of energy, which is something that we’ve really been focusing on in this NCAA tournament.
“We’re mentally fresh. It’s some of the best tennis I’ve seen us play all year. I still think the best is in front of us, and I have no doubt that we’re going to step it up to another level in Athens. I could not feel better about this team. There’s just something about this team, and it feels right. These guys have a great level of composure and confidence and determination and focus, and I see a lot of good things ahead.”
After beating Duke for the ACC title, UVa didn’t play again until its NCAA tournament opener, a competitive break of three weeks. The length of the layoff initially worried Boland, who feared his team might lose its edge.
“But to be honest, to see the way the team responded over this past weekend, and everything the team’s been through, both on and off the court, I really believe that this was the necessary time,” Boland said.
“They were ready to play. We’ve had a lot of chances to work on the court and tend to the details that we needed to get better, but we’ve also been able to get in the right emotional place, both on and off the court.”
Shabaz said: “We’ve talked about this a little bit …. I think we’ve played a lot more matches than any other team. So we’ve played a lot, we’ve competed a lot, and I think we needed to have a little bit of down time to focus and get ready for Athens. I think as a team we’re feeling good and we’re ready to go.”
Of the Cavaliers who will take the court in the round of 16, only freshman Jarmere Jenkins has not played on that stage before. Shabaz, Courtney, junior Sanam Singh and seniors Houston Barrick and Lee Singer are NCAA tourney veterans.
The other Cavaliers, however, have complete faith in Jenkins, who plays No. 3 singles and, with Singer, No. 3 doubles.
“He’s shown from national indoors that he can step up on the biggest occasion,” Shabaz said. “He’s handling himself great. He’s a big point for us, and as long as he’s in there and battling, we’ve got all the confidence in Jarmere to get that point.”
Jenkins is from the Atlanta area, and he expects to have a large and vocal cheering section in Athens.
“I don’t know if [the University of Georgia] is going to like it too much,” Jenkins said with a smile, “but I’m feeling good about it.”
That’s the way Boland feels about his team.
“They’re solid from top to bottom,” he said. “They rise up. As the moment gets bigger, they get better, and that’s the sign of a great team. We have great leadership internally. We have guys who have been there and they’ve done it. They know what to expect. They can handle the pressure. They love it, and they’re going to be ready to play. This is going to be fun.”