By Jeff White
ATHENS, Ga. — At the end of a match that took nearly eight hours to complete, Brian Boland was handed the microphone early Wednesday morning. It was past 1 o’clock, and many of the fans who had packed the University of Georgia’s indoor tennis facility had departed.
The University of Virginia’s veteran coach and his players may have wanted to leave too, but they had to stick around for a trophy presentation during which Southern California was crowned NCAA men’s champion for the fourth consecutive year.
Boland congratulated the top-seeded Trojans on their 4-2 victory over the third-seeded Cavaliers. Then he thanked his players and staff and UVa’s administration. Finally, he saluted Virginia fans for their loyalty. The program’s supporters turned out in force for the NCAA tournament, first in Charlottesville and then in Athens, and cheered with gusto until the final point Wednesday morning.
“We’ll get there, guys,” Boland promised. “We’ll get there.”
The Wahoos (29-2), who are seeking their first NCAA title in this sport, nearly got there this year in a marathon match that began outdoors, at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex, and ended indoors after thunderstorms moved through the area. In the end, though, UVa suffered more heartbreak at the hands of its nemesis.
With USC leading 3-2, UVa sophomore Justin Shane broke Yannick Hanfmann’s serve to take a 5-4 lead in the third set of their match at No. 5 singles. One court over, at No. 6 singles, junior Julen Uriguen led 4-1 in the third and final set of his match with USC’s Roberto Quiroz.
Victory seemed to be within the Cavaliers’ grasp, and their fans roared in anticipation. But Hanfmann broke Shane to pull to 5-5, then held serve to go up 6-5. Shane took the next game, but Hanfmann prevailed in the tiebreaker, 7-4, and USC had eliminated UVa from the NCAAs for the fourth year in a row. (Uriguen was leading Quiroz 4-3 when the match was halted.)
“I always say that you have to be willing to go through the pain if you’re gonna play the game, so to speak,” Boland told reporters afterward. “These guys continue to get back here and put themselves in position to become champions, and in my mind they’re champions regardless of winning or losing this match. They did everything the right way this year, and they’ve worked extremely had, and they’ve got tremendous leaders in [captains Jarmere Jenkins, Drew Courtney and Phillippe Oudshoorn].”
The NCAA team title was the 20th for USC, which won its first in 1946. After winning No. 16 in 2002, the Trojans didn’t triumph again until 2009. They beat the ‘Hoos in the NCAA quarterfinals that year. Twelve months later, USC beat UVa in the NCAA semifinals. Last year, at Stanford, the Trojans edged the Cavaliers 4-3 in the championship match.
In each of those losses to USC, however, UVa dropped the doubles point. On Tuesday, Virginia got comeback victories from sophomore Alex Domijan and freshman Mitchell Frank at No. 2 and Shane and Uriguen at No. 3, only the second time this season the Trojans lost the doubles point.
“We felt good,” Boland said, “but we knew we had a lot of work to do.”
The Cavaliers hoped to do that work outside, but then the first thunderstorm arrived around 6 p.m., soaking the courts. The teams were sent back to their hotels, and NCAA officials announced that they would try to begin the singles matches around 8:30 p.m.
Once the courts were dry again, players returned to the courts to warm up, but another thunderstorm arrived around 8:20 p.m. For the second straight night, the proceedings were moved inside to Georgia’s four-court indoor facility, where the singles matches began at 8:45 p.m.
With Shane and Uriguen looking on, Jenkins (No. 1), Domijan (No. 2), Frank (No. 3) and Courtney (No. 4) began play.
“We certainly had a really good mindset about it,” Boland said of moving indoors. “The guys handled the adversity of some changes that took place over the tournament. That’s just part of sports, and I thought we handled all those transitions really well. Credit to Southern California. They came out and jumped on us early. I think that was more of a credit to them than anything we did poorly.
“I thought the mindsets were great, and both teams left it out there, and one team had to lose unfortunately.”
Virginia has been a dominant indoor team under Boland, winning four of the past five ITA national team indoor titles. The Trojans (33-1), however, won that tournament this year — in Charlottesville, no less — and they looked confident and comfortable indoors Tuesday night.
Defending NCAA singles champion Steve Johnson defeated Jenkins in straight sets at No. 1. More surprising were the Trojans’ two-set victories over Domijan and Courtney. Domijan had not lost since March 7.
At 10:01 p.m., Johnson’s match with Jenkins ended, evening the team score at 1-1. Six minutes later, Courtney lost to Emilio Gomez, and Virginia trailed 2-1. Frank’s victory over Daniel Nguyen made it 2-2, but Ray Sarmiento closed out Domijan at 10:41 p.m. to put the Trojans back up 3-2.
To win the NCAA title, the Cavaliers needed victories from both Shane and Uriguen, and they nearly pulled it off.
The Trojans “deserve all the credit for getting it done, but I’m really proud of my players,” Boland said. “I thought Justin did an amazing job. What a great learning experience for him and for the rest of the guys.
“It was a tremendous journey, and I feel very, very blessed to have the opportunity to coach them.”
In last year’s NCAA final, Shane had been overwhelmed in a 6-0, 6-3 loss to Gomez at No. 5 singles. A year later, the strides Shane has made were on full display in Athens.
“It’s a tribute to the coaches,” he said. “They really helped me a lot get my head on straight and get a better perspective on the matches.”
Asked about the effect on his team of the long break between singles and doubles — nearly three hours — Boland refused to make excuses.
“What I always tell the guys is, you control what you can,” Boland said. “We don’t have any control over that. So they handled it well.”
When the match finally ended at 12:52 a.m., the Trojans found the energy for a spirited celebration as their band played in the stands. Boland called his players together and tried to put the season in perspective for them.
“It’s hard, but that’s part of the job,” he said later. “You gotta put yourself in a position to go this far and be willing to suffer if it doesn’t work out, and we’ll be back again and again. We’re not going anywhere. I’m excited already about next year, and I’ll start working on that sometime this week.”
Of the players who made up Boland’s lineup for the NCAA final, only Courtney is a senior, and a heralded recruiting class will enroll at UVa this summer.
“I’d certainly like another outcome, but I’m extremely proud of the guys,” said Jenkins, the ACC player of the year. “The way I’m feeling right now, obviously I’m a little down, but I think we had a good season. I think we put things in perspective. We’ve come a long way. Our guys made a lot of sacrifices, we worked really hard, and I think this is the time where we see what champions are made of.
“For me, I think it’s just another tool for me to use and motivate me more for next year, to work harder to make more sacrifices and come back even stronger.”