May 22, 2013
URBANA, Ill. — If he wondered at times if the breakthrough would ever come for his program, who could blame him?
Twice during Brian Boland’s extraordinary run as men’s tennis coach at Virginia — in 2011 and again in ’12 — his team had lost to Southern California in the NCAA final. Three other times the Cavaliers had lost in the NCAA semifinals. UVa piled up ACC championships and ITA National Team Indoor titles but became known for excruciating defeats at the NCAAs.
Still, Boland never lost hope, never stopped believing the day was coming when Virginia would be crowned NCAA champion in the sport to which he’s devoted most of his life. That day arrived Tuesday — against, as chance would have it, another Pac-12 team from Los Angeles.
“It happened,” Boland said. “It finally happened.”
It happened in extraordinary fashion, coming down to a singles match that, with UVa and UCLA tied 3-3, became the focus of every spectator at the University of Illinois’ Kahn Outdoor Tennis Complex late Tuesday afternoon.
At No. 3 singles, UVa sophomore Mitchell Frank had dropped the first set to Adrian Puget, 6-0. Frank rallied to win the second set, 6-4, but trailed 5-3 in the third and, with Puget serving up 40-30, faced match point.
If Frank lost the point, the unbeaten Wahoos would walk away from the NCAAs crushed again. If he won the point, the `Hoos would still have a chance, however slim, to pull out a historic victory.
However improbably, Frank extended the match. The chair umpire ruled Puget had touched the net with his foot and awarded the point to Frank. Deuce.
“I’m glad that he touched the net, luckily,” Frank said later. “A couple inches can make the difference.”
Puget never recovered from his lapse. In winning the final four games, Frank broke Puget twice, and the chant from the stands — “U-V-A! U-V-A!”– grew steadily louder as the match wound toward its gripping conclusion.
“They’re the best,” Frank said of Virginia’s fans, who turned out in force in Urbana. “They helped me get through today, for sure.”
The match ended when Puget, down 30-40, hit a shot wide. For an instant, nobody reacted. Then Frank dropped to the court in joy and relief, and his teammates mobbed him in a dogpile a moment later. About 20 feet away, Boland, overcome by emotion, was wrapped in a bear-hug by assistant coach Andres Pedroso.
The NCAA title was the first by an ACC school in men’s tennis. It also filled the only hole on Boland’s coaching résumé.
“I don’t think it’s set in yet,” he said later. “But it’s a great feeling. Outside of having four children with a great wife, it’s the next-best feeling I’ve ever had in my life, quite honestly.
“It’s been a long journey. We’ve been here so many times.”
This is Boland’s 12th season as the Cavaliers’ head coach. His 11th ended in Athens, Ga., where USC rallied to defeat UVa 4-2 in the NCAA final that because of inclement weather was completed indoors.
In Athens, Justin Shane had an opportunity, serving with a 6-5 lead in the third set, to pull UVa to 3-3 with a victory. Yannick Hanfmann rallied to win that match, clinching the NCAA championship for the Trojans, but a year later Shane came through for the `Hoos.
“Every year I just keep improving, every NCAA tournament,” said Shane, a junior who destroyed UCLA’s Clay Thompson 6-2, 6-2.
Shane’s singles victory pushed the Cavaliers’ lead to 2-0. UCLA wins as Nos. 2 and 4 made it 2-2, but then Jenkins prevailed in two sets at No. 1, and UVa was back on top, 3-2.
At No. 6, Uriguen fell in three sets, and suddenly the Wahoos’ hopes rested on Frank. That boosted his teammates’ confidence.
“I’ve been watching Mitchell since I was like 10 years old, so I wouldn’t have wanted anyone else out there,” said Shane, who’s also from Northern Virginia.
Jenkins said: “I was happy that it came down to Mitchell. Mitchell’s the greatest worker on the team. All the nights that he’s stayed [out practicing] till 2 a.m., when everyone’s just sleeping. I couldn’t think of a better person that was deserving to clinch it.”
Never mind that Puget had dominated Frank in their first set.
“I didn’t panic at all,” Shane said. “I’ve seen him lose plenty of first sets 6-0 and then come back and win … So I was like, `It’s just a normal day for Mitch. Just feeling out the wind.’ “
Frank said: “I would say I’m semi-notable for losing some bad first sets. I’ve been down 6-0, 6-1, a decent amount in my life. For me there’s just no panic. He was playing unbelievable tennis in that first set. There was a couple points that could have gone either way, and that could have been the difference between me getting back in that set and being competitive, or him running away with it like he did.
“I knew that I was just going to keep plugging away. I’d get my chances. I was just focused on playing every point as hard as I could. I knew that you don’t get to play many national championship matches, so I was just focused on getting off to a better start in the second set, which I did, and I was able to carry the momentum through a little bit.”
As Frank rallied in the third set, the other Cavaliers, standing together on an adjacent court, urged him on.
“All heart, Mitch!” a teammate yelled during the third set.
“My heartbeat was racing so much,” Jenkins recalled, smiling. “It’s so much more painstaking watching than playing. When I was out there playing, I felt fine. My nerves were fine.”
Watching from another court, Boland stayed outwardly calm, even when Frank fell behind 5-3 in the final set.
“I think after all these years, you tell yourself that if you’re not willing to suffer, then you can’t have the opportunity [to win championships],” Boland said. “So we go into these moments, and you just have to be willing to deal with it, no matter what the result is, and deal with it in the most professional manner.”
The `Hoos finished 30-0. That raises Boland’s record at UVa to an astonishing 333-47. Twenty of those losses came in his first two seasons.
“I couldn’t think of another coach who deserves this more,” said Jenkins, who was named the NCAA tournament’s most outstanding player.
“Just like Mitchell’s the hardest worker on the team, Boland’s the hardest-working coach in the country. The amount of work that he’s put into this program, and to be able to come so close in the past and not get it done, and to finally get it done today, he deserves it.”
Boland said: “This is a win for all those former players who didn’t have this moment, but certainly they got us here. Somdev Devvarman, who meant so much to our program, Sanam Singh, Michael Shabaz, so many others that put in such a great effort, and it just never turned their way. Today was our day.
“People kept telling me over the years, `Your day will come,’ and it finally happened … All I ever told the guys is, we gotta give ourselves a chance. There’s no guarantees. It’s sports. And we gave ourselves a chance, and this time it worked out for us.”
Frank said: “To be a part of the first championship team is incredible. It’s something I’ll never forget for the rest of my life. It’s obviously incredibly special, and I’m looking forward to hopefully getting a couple more before I leave.”
After the trophy presentation, an NCAA official handed the microphone to Boland, who was interrupted before he could address the crowd.
“We love you, Boland!” a UVa fan shouted.
Later Boland would talk on the phone with his parents, a conversation he described as emotional. Now, though, he thanked numerous people for the role they played in the Cavaliers’ success, a group that included his wife, Becky, his players, assistant coaches Pedroso and Scott Brown, athletics director Craig Littlepage and executive associate AD Jon Oliver, who supervises men’s tennis.
“Jon, we’re just getting started, right?” Boland said.
Bad news for the rest of the college tennis world.
No. 2 VIRGINIA 4, No. 1 UCLA 3
Doubles: 1) No. 4 Jenkins/Styslinger (UVa) def. No. 42 Giron/Novikov 8-2 ; 2) No. 77 Puget/Sell (UCLA) led No. 21 Frank/Domijan 7-4 DNF ; 3) No. 89 J. Shane/J. Uriguen (UVa) def. Brigham/Thompson 8-5.
Singles: 1) No. 3 Jarmere Jenkins (UVa) def. No. 27 Dennis Novikov 7-6(3), 6-3 ; 2) No. 25 Marcus Giron (UCLA) def. No. 2 Alex Domijan 6-4, 6-4 ; 3) No. 39 Mitchell Frank (UVa) def. No. 22 Adrian Puget 0-6, 6-4, 7-5; 4) No. 75 Dennis Mkrtchian (UCLA) def. No. 28 Mac Styslinger 6-4, 6-3 ; 5) Justin Shane (UVa) def. No. 119 Clay Thompson 6-2, 6-2 ; 6) Karue Sell (UCLA) def. Julen Uriguen 4-6, 6-3, 6-2.
Order of finish: doubles: 1,3 ; singles: 5,2,4,1,6,3.