By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The spring schedule for the UVa men’s tennis team includes a March 17 match at the University of Illinois.
Illinois, as ardent fans know, will host the NCAA outdoor championships in May. Rest assured, it’s no coincidence that the Cavaliers arranged a visit to Urbana-Champaign.
“Totally strategic,” UVa coach Brian Boland said Thursday.
“It’s something that [executive associate athletics director] Jon Oliver and I had discussed, and we were able to fit it into the spring break schedule, and I really do believe that it’s important for us to spend some time at the [NCAA] finals site, which is something that we haven’t always had the opportunity to do.”
In 2011 and again last year, UVa advanced to the NCAA final before losing to Southern California. The longtime rivals met again Monday in Seattle, this time in the final of the ITA National Team Indoor Championships, and this time the Wahoos wrote a different ending.
At the Nordstrom Tennis Center, top-ranked UVa defeated its nemesis 4-2 to capture the ITA indoor title for the fifth time in six years. Second-ranked USC was the tournament’s defending champion.
“That was amazing out there,” Boland said. “The crowds were amazing, and the other thing that was cool was how popular the SC-Virginia rivalry has gotten. Ten thousand people were watching [the video stream of the final]. That’s unbelievable. That just blows my mind.
“It’s a rivalry, and people love it. It’s always good, I think, to have rivalries in sports. It’s good for college tennis.”
The victory over the Trojans improved the Cavaliers’ record to 6-0. At this point in previous seasons, Boland said, UVa “might have been 12-0 or 15-0.” His scheduling philosophy has evolved over the years.
“I’ve tried it all,” he said.
Under Boland, Virginia has won six straight ACC tournament titles. Only once during that span have the `Hoos fallen short of the NCAA semifinals or final — in 2009, when they were upset in the quarterfinals.
“The truth of the matter is I’m really proud of our postseason play, and I think when you give yourself a chance, you’re doing some great things,” Boland said. “So I don’t want to take away from what we’ve done, but like any coach, you’re always kind of looking at your personnel and what you have and trying to find that edge to get you over the top.
“In the past, I felt it was important to make the guys extremely uncomfortable [during the regular season] and to go through situations where we were traveling a lot, and put the guys through some really rigorous situations. And I think we will have those times this year. I’ve just gone about it a little bit differently in terms of how we started.”
This year, Boland said, “I wanted to build a foundation of physical fitness and fundamentals before we really got into the swing of things in March. So as much as we played in the fall, I really believed that the best thing for this team was to train as often as possible with as few matches over January and February. And then as we get into March, we start to compete more to prepare for the NCAAs in May.”
UVa’s next match is not until March 3, against Oklahoma. “We started a race, and we started jogging before we started sprinting, in a sense,” Boland said. “So hopefully it pays off.”
He laughed. “I’ll tell you in May how well it works.”
Like UVa men’s lacrosse coach Dom Starsia, Boland coaches a team that’s a perennial NCAA title contender. That status affects how their teams’ seasons are judged.
“What I try to emphasize to my guys more than anything — and I think Dom’s no different, and so many of the great coaches at the University of Virginia are no different — is that we want to enjoy the journey,” Boland said.
“If you’re going to define yourself by whether or not you win a national championship, it’s a dangerous road to go down. I believe there’s so much more involved in what we do and how we go about it. The journey that I’ve been able to take with so many of these great teams has been invaluable and such an amazing experience, and this team is no different. ”
The Cavaliers’ singles lineup against the Trojans consisted of senior Jarmere Jenkins at No. 1, junior Alex Domijan at No. 2, sophomore Mitchell Frank at No. 3, freshman Mac Styslinger at No. 4, freshman Ryan Shane at No. 5 and his brother, junior Justin Shane, at No. 6.
In doubles, Jenkins and Styslinger played No. 1, Justin Shane and senior Julen Uriguen No. 2, and Domijian and Frank No. 3. Wins at Nos. 2 and 3 earned the doubles point for Virginia, which then picked up singles victories from Jenkins, Domijan and Frank. (Styslinger was tied in the third set of his match when Frank clinched the ITA championship for UVa.)
“It’s a special group of guys that have amazing chemistry that really get along and work well together and push each other every day in practice to become better,” Boland said. “And they’re great people. I am thoroughly enjoying working with these young people and seeing them grow and prosper and develop. It becomes such a thrill for me.”
Virginia’s pursuit of its first NCAA title in this sport, Boland said, has “only helped me grow as a coach and become better at what I’ve done and gain a perspective that really gives us a purpose behind what we do.
“So, yes, we want to win national championships, and I would love to see that happen for these young people and just the program as a whole. But at the same time, what I’m most proud of is seeing these guys work together and become better people and players throughout the course of the journey that we take together.”
In February 2012, USC came to Charlottesville and won the ITA national indoor title at the Boar’s Head Sports Club. About three months later, in Athens, Ga., the UVa-USC showdown for the NCAA title began outdoors. After thunderstorms soaked the courts, however, all the singles matches were played indoors.
“Even in May, if it rains you end up going indoors [at the NCAAs],” Boland said. “The same thing happened when we played Georgia in 2006, and we’ve had to go indoors at other times throughout the course of NCAA history.”
Given that, Boland said, the Cavaliers’ latest ITA indoor crown “is significant and gives us a lot of confidence moving forward, and I really believe this will help our momentum as we prepare for what will be an extremely busy March and April and May.
“We really kick our season off in March, and I think we have a tremendous foundation, just physically, mentally and emotionally, in where we need to be at this point of the season. So I feel great about where we’re at right now, but at the same time I know the hard work is ahead of us.”
This is Boland’s 12th season at UVa, where he has compiled an extraordinary record: 309-47. He’s coached numerous great players, including two-time NCAA singles champion Somdev Devvarman, but Boland says he’s never had a trio better than Jenkins, Domijan and Frank.
“And Mac’s ranked No. 5 in the country right now, and he’s at 4 [singles],” Boland said.
“This is special, and what I appreciate so much about these guys, in terms of Alex Domijan, Mitchell Frank and Jarmere Jenkins, is that they’re so unselfish. Not one of them at any point has ever complained or mentioned what number they play in the lineup or anything like that. That’s just very unique, in terms of a sport that is so individualistic like this, for these young men to be so unselfish.
“I can remember telling Jarmere at the national indoors, `I’m going to have you play 1,’ because we have to submit our lineups before,” Boland recalled, “and he said, `You know, you don’t even need to tell me that. Just let me know what court I need to go on, and I’ll give it my best.’ ”