By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For the University of Virginia tennis teams, the quest for NCAA glory began last weekend on their home courts: indoors at the Boar’s Head Sports Club and outdoors at the Snyder Tennis Center.
It resumes in Athens, Ga., where the teams arrived late Monday to start preparing for their respective round-of-16 matches.
The third-seeded UVa women take the courts first. At noon Thursday, Virginia (23-5) meets No. 14 seed Baylor (26-6) at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex. Weather permitting, the match will be played outdoors.
A victory would send the Cavaliers, who won their first ACC title last month, to the NCAA quarterfinals for the first time.
“We feel very confident,” head coach Mark Guilbeau said Wednesday. “And when I say that, I’m talking about how strong a level we’re capable of playing at.”
The fourth-seeded UVa men, who last year captured the program’s first NCAA title, don’t play in Athens until Friday. At noon, Virginia (25-2) faces a familiar opponent, No. 13 seed Notre Dame (21-9).
The Wahoos are 3-0 against the Fighting Irish this season, having beaten them 4-0 at the ITA National Team Indoors, 6-1 in a regular-season match and 4-0 in the ACC tournament.
Final exams ended at UVa last week, and men’s coach Brian Boland was eager to get his team to Athens early.
“It’s been cold up here all winter long,” Boland said Monday in Charlottesville, “so I think this is important for us, to try to get acclimated to the heat and the conditions. I think it’ll make a big difference for us going into this weekend.
“If we can get by the match on Friday, we potentially could play back-to-back-to-back” — Sunday, Monday and Tuesday — “which is different than it was last year. We have to be ready to deal with the heat and all the conditions, so the sooner we get down there, I think, is a big advantage to us.”
The ‘Hoos have devoted considerable time to doubles this week. Virginia opened the NCAA tournament with a 4-0 win over Army at the Boar’s Head Sports Club on Saturday. In the second round, though, UVa dropped the doubles point to Penn State before dominating singles to win 4-1 at the Snyder Tennis Center on Sunday.
“I think the guys are pretty confident overall,” junior Mitchell Frank said Monday. “Obviously we lost the doubles point yesterday, had a little bit of adversity there, but I don’t think that was a bad thing. I think that kind of makes everyone realize that, hey, if we don’t come out to play, anyone can come out and play well and beat us there.
“It kind of keeps the guys on edge, which I think is important. Instead of just rolling over these teams and just getting through easy, I think it’s good to get a little bit of a test early on, to see how we bounce back, and I think we bounced back well.”
Virginia’s doubles teams in the NCAAs are freshman Luca Corinteli and sophomore Mac Styslinger at No. 1, senior Alex Domijan and sophomore Harrison Richmond at No. 2, and Frank and senior Justin Shane at No. 3.
“We certainly have the pieces to play great doubles,” Boland said Monday. “We’ve played extremely well at times this year. We’ve only dropped a few points throughout the whole year. We just need to spend a little bit more time on it. We’re a tough team if we can get that doubles point, and again, we’re also a team that I think does a good job of not panicking if it doesn’t work out, like it did on Sunday. I thought the team responded really well.”
The UVa women also hosted an NCAA regional last weekend. After blanking Youngstown State 4-0 outdoors on Friday, the `Hoos were forced indoors for their second-round match against Kentucky. The Wildcats took the doubles point Saturday night at the Boar’s Head Sports Club, but Virginia battled back in singles and won 4-1.
“Not to overreact to the doubles,” Guilbeau said, “but we really tried to learn from what we were taught Saturday night.”
UVa’s doubles lineup consists of sophomore Stephanie Nauta and senior Li Xi at No. 1, sophomore Julia Elbaba and freshman Rachel Pierson at No. 2, and sophomores Danielle Collins and Maci Epstein at No. 3.
In singles, the Cavaliers start four sophomores — Elbaba at No. 1, Collins at No. 2, Nauta at No. 3 and Epstein at No. 5 — along with Pierson at No. 4 and senior Caryssa Peretz at No. 6.
Many of those players had key roles on the UVa team that lost in the NCAA tournament’s round of 16 last year in Champaign, Ill.
“You can see that as good as they were last year, these kids are even stronger and more experienced,” Guilbeau said, “and they’re handing tournament situations a lot better.”
The `Hoos practiced on the outdoor courts at the Boar’s Head Sports Club before busing to Athens on Monday. His players, feeling the effects of a grueling season, looked a little tired at practice Tuesday, Guilbeau said, but they were sharper Wednesday.
“We had a short practice, but a good practice,” he said that afternoon. “We really fine-tuned the notes on Baylor.”
On the women’s side, Guilbeau said, there “are 14, 15, 16 teams that can actually win this thing, and that’s made for an exciting year.”
In March 2013, Baylor edged UVa 4-3 in a regular-season match in Waco, Texas. Both teams are probably stronger this season, Guilbeau said, but he’s confident heading into Thursday’s match.
“I do feel like when you look at each matchup, we have a very good chance,” he said.
The Virginia men have a history in Athens. In 2007 and again in 2010, the Cavaliers lost in the NCAA semifinals there. In 2012, in a match that started outdoors before moving indoors because of bad weather, Southern California edged UVa 4-2 in Athens for the NCAA title.
“It was definitely very tough at the end,” said Frank, who was a freshman in 2012. “Probably one of my fondest memories from there is winning the doubles point versus USC. That was kind of unexpected, because we’d been super up and down in the doubles the whole year. That was considered our weakest spot, and I remember that we kind of took it to them.”
The Cavaliers breakthrough came last year at the University of Illinois, where they edged UCLA 4-3 for the NCAA crown. Frank clinched the title for UVa, rallying for a 0-6, 6-4, 7-5 victory at No. 3 singles.
That experience figures to serve Virginia well in Athens.
“I think it helps a lot as far as confidence goes,” said Domijan, who plays No. 1 singles. “We’ve been down the hard matches before in the pressure situations. I think we’ve been exposed to some difficult situations over the course of this season so far, some tough losses, some tough wins. So I think we’re in a good spot.”
Boland returned a strong core of veterans from that team, among them Frank, Domijan, Styslinger and brothers Justin and Ryan Shane.
“You draw from the fact that you have been there, you have done it,” said Frank, who plays No. 2 singles. “In years past we kind of didn’t know what it felt like. That’s going to obviously be a little more difficult to relate to how we need to prepare, what we need to do, what it feels like to hold that trophy at the end.”
The Virginia men are in the Sweet Sixteen for the 11th consecutive season. This is the eighth straight year Boland’s team has been a top-four seed.