April 28, 2015
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Around 5:45 p.m. Sunday in Chapel Hill, N.C., Virginia secured the ACC women’s tennis championship with a 4-0 victory over Georgia Tech.
Fifteen minutes later, in nearby Durham, N.C, Virginia clinched the ACC men’s tennis title with a 4-2 win over Wake Forest.
The twin triumphs were nothing new for the Cavaliers. Both UVa teams were crowned ACC champions in 2014, too, in Cary, N.C., and their reigns will continue for at least another year.
“It’s really exciting to be the kings and queens of the ACC,” junior Stephanie Nauta, captain of the women’s team, said Monday afternoon.
“Virginia tennis has continued to build and grow over the last decade, and I think we’re coming together and doing some great things,” said Brian Boland, who’s in his 14th year as head coach of the men’s team.
“It’s only a positive when tennis at Virginia is really successful, both on the men’s and women’s side. I believe it only helps both programs.”
Sunday’s championship matches were originally scheduled to be played outdoors in Cary, but the threat of rain moved them indoors at different sites: the men at Duke’s facility, the women at North Carolina’s.
That forced UVa fans and administrators “to split up,” women’s head coach Mark Guilbeau said Monday, “some watching the men, some watching us, but I can tell you that I know I felt the support, and I know our kids felt it, and we’re so fortunate and thankful for that as well. It was awesome to share it with the group that we had down there.”
The Virginia women are in their 10th season under Guilbeau, whose associate head coach is Troy Porco. They led the `Hoos to their first ACC championship last year.
The Virginia men’s program has been a national power for more than a decade. The Cavaliers have won nine straight ACC titles and 11 overall. All have come during the tenure of Boland, who guided Virginia to the NCAA championship in 2013.
UVa’s dominance of the ACC under Boland boggles the mind. Virginia has won 139 consecutive matches (regular season and tournament) against conference foes, the longest streak in ACC history in any sport.
The conference is especially strong this season, which adds luster to Virginia’s latest title. So does the fact that the `Hoos (23-3) won Sunday without their only senior, Mitchell Frank, a four-time All-ACC selection and the team’s captain.
Back spasms sidelined Frank for the final. He could have played against Wake but wouldn’t have been close to 100 percent, Frank said Monday, “so having somebody else in there was better for the team.”
Without him, his teammates “came out with a great sense of urgency,” Frank said, “and in a way I think it forced some other guys to step up in a tough moment. It was good to see.”
In singles, junior Ryan Shane played No. 1, freshman Collin Altamirano No. 2, sophomore Thai-Son Kwiatkowski No. 3, freshman Alexander Ritschard No. 4, sophomore J.C. Aragone No. 5 and junior Mac Styslinger No. 6 for top-seeded UVa.
The doubles teams were Shane and sophomore Luca Corinteli at No. 1, Styslinger and Kwiatkowski at No. 2, and Altamirano and Aragone at No. 3.
Virginia won the doubles point and then collected singles victories from Kwiatkowski, Ritschard and Aragone to defeat the third-seeded Demon Deacons, whose head coach, Tony Bresky, is a former UVa assistant. Aragone was named the tourney’s MVP.
“We’ve talked about it throughout the year, that when your name’s called you need to be ready,” Boland said Monday, “and I’m really impressed with the maturity and character of this team. Because these guys truly are ready to play. They all come together and work hard every day, and one of the things they’ve taken a lot of pride in is putting the orange and blue on, year after year and day after day, and that’s been a huge positive for us.”
Frank remembers his first year at UVa, when the team’s seniors celebrated their fourth consecutive ACC title.
“They went 4 for 4, and that was something I wanted to do, too,” said Frank, who expects to be available for the NCAA tournament. “It’s super special. Each one’s very different.”
There have been seasons, Frank noted, when Duke and UNC were the only ACC teams to seriously test UVa.
“This year it’s really seemed like every single match has been a challenge, and the other teams have pushed us,” Frank said. “I think this is going to bode well for us going forward. This year I think everyone’s concentration and focus have really ramped up.”
Boland said: “We’re in a really good place. I’ve really enjoyed the journey thus far, and we’re all very excited about NCAAs.”
The NCAA will announce its men’s and women’s tournament fields Tuesday evening.
In 2014, as the No. 4 seed in the men’s tourney, the Virginia men advanced to the NCAA semifinals for the fifth consecutive year. The UVa women, seeded No. 3, reached the NCAA quarterfinals for the first time in program history.
Most of the top players from that Virginia team returned this year, including juniors Nauta, Julia Elbaba, Danielle Collins and Maci Epstein. Rounding out the Cavaliers’ top lineup this year are junior Skylar Morton, a transfer who began her college career at UCLA, and freshman Cassie Mercer. (Morton was named ACC tournament MVP after the final Sunday.)
Injuries and illnesses hindered the Cavaliers for much of the regular season. Virginia entered the ACC tournament as the No. 4 seed and, after defeating fifth-seeded Clemson, found itself matched against top-seeded North Carolina in the semifinals.
The `Hoos embraced the opportunity. In their regular-season encounter with UNC, the Cavaliers lost 4-3 in Chapel Hill, but Epstein missed that match with an injury.
With a full complement of players, Virginia avenged that defeat in emphatic fashion Saturday, stunning the previously unbeaten Tar Heels 4-1 indoors in Durham. UVa won the doubles point, after which Morton, Collins and, finally, Mercer won in singles to oust UNC.
The Cavaliers’ opponent in the ACC final, Georgia Tech, was the tournament’s No. 6 seed. Virginia had defeated the Yellow Jackets 5-2 in Atlanta during the regular season, but Guilbeau never sensed overconfidence in his players as they prepared for Sunday’s championship match.
“I could see by the way that we communicated a little bit on Saturday night, and then certainly at the follow-up meeting on Sunday morning, the kids were staying with the course of action real well,” Guilbeau said.
“That started the minute we finished against North Carolina. I look at those three matches [in the ACC tournament] — and maybe the kids would share the same message — and it seems like one match, and that’s a great way for it to feel and be. So you just stay in one moment and you keep going and you don’t really allow the opportunity to have something great throw you off track or have something not great throw you off.”
On the eve of the regular-season finale against NC State, Guilbeau and Porco shook up the team’s doubles lineup, and the new pairings (Morton and Elbaba at No. 1, Nauta and Mercer at No. 2, Collins and Epstein at No. 3) are working well. The Cavaliers will enter the NCAA tournament on a six-match winning streak, and they’re as healthy as they’ve been all season.
There are other factors, though, in Virginia’s late-season surge. The team’s chemistry has improved, Guilbeau said, thanks in no small part to Nauta’s leadership.
“Stephanie has put in a lot of work,” he said.
Collectively, Nauta said, the `Hoos “finally understand what it is to be a team, what it means and what you have to do day in and day out. Having that rough start showed us how much a full team is important. Throughout the season we’ve continued to gain that perspective.”
At the ACC tournament, Nauta said, “we were out there and we were fighting for each other, and there was just a really big team feeling.”
The regular season “didn’t go as well as we had expected,” Nauta said, “but I think getting through that rough patch and then having that incredible weekend at ACCs give us a ton of confidence.”