May 14, 2015
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For UVa men’s tennis coach Brian Boland, some of these trips are starting to blur together, and that’s understandable. There have been so many of them.
The Cavaliers, in their 14th season under Boland, have reached the NCAA tournament’s round of 16 for the 12th straight season. A victory Thursday (5 p.m.) over Columbia (16-5) would send third-seeded Virginia (25-3) to the NCAA quarterfinals for the 11th consecutive year.
“I think some I remember better than others, just because of a particular team or a year that for whatever reason really resonates with you because of the journey,” Boland said at the Boar’s Head Sports Club.
His latest team, which flew to Waco, Texas, on Monday afternoon, is one Boland may never forget. Virginia, which dropped three of its first 12 matches, has steadily improved with a lineup that includes only one senior, captain Mitchell Frank. In a stellar year for ACC tennis — Duke, North Carolina and Wake Forest also are in the Sweet Sixteen — UVa won its ninth straight conference title.
“This has been — and I told the team this earlier today — certainly one of my most enjoyable years in coaching, and it’s a tribute to the players and the fact that they’ve really become a true team,” Boland said Monday.
Having reached this stage of the NCAA tourney so many times, the Wahoos are unlikely to be fazed by anything they’ll encounter in Waco.
“I’ve probably never felt more at peace about how we do things and why and the way in which we prepare,” Boland said. “I just couldn’t feel more confident. You just can’t buy experience. You have to have it, and I know the guys really believe in this process. They have really embraced it from the beginning of the year, and that’s why they’ve become a true team, and they play for something bigger than themselves.”
In 2014, UVa advanced to the NCAA semifinals before losing to eventual champion Southern California in Athens, Ga. Junior Ryan Shane believes this Virginia team is better equipped to capture the program’s second NCAA championship.
“Coming in last year we were a bit unorganized, I feel, and we still had a pretty good run,” Shane said. “This year I feel like everyone is on the same page. Everyone knows what we have to do.”
Last year, Virginia “had a younger team,” Shane said. “The starting lineup was a little younger. This year everyone has been in this situation. Everyone knows what to expect. We only have one [true] freshman [starting] right now, and I’m sure he’s been in situations like this. So I think we all know what to expect and know what to do.”
That true freshman, Collin Altamirano, played No. 3 singles in the Cavaliers’ first two matches in this NCAA tourney. Rounding out UVa’s lineup were Shane at No. 1, Frank at No. 2, sophomore Thai-Son Kwiatkowski at No. 4, redshirt freshman Alexander Ritschard at No. 5 and sophomore J.C. Aragone at No. 6.
Virginia opened the NCAA tournament Friday with a 4-0 victory over St. John’s at the Snyder Tennis Center. In the second round Saturday, UVa blanked Minnesota 4-0. The final scores, though, belie the challenges Boland’s team faced in each match.
“We’ve been tested throughout this year, not only in our non-conference schedule, but as well in the ACC regular season and tournament, more than we have in the past,” Boland said.
“That’s always been one of my concerns, not something I was overly concerned about, but it was always in the back of my mind: Have we been pushed enough? Are we in enough tight situations? This year certainly is ahead of [previous seasons] in terms of how hard we’ve been pushed, and some of the competitive matches we’ve had where the guys really can feel that adversity and pressure.”
Of UVa’s three losses, two were to Baylor and the other was to Oklahoma. The Bears are seeded No. 2 in the NCAA tournament, the Sooners No. 1.
Virginia and Baylor could meet in the semifinals Monday in Waco. If there’s a rematch with Oklahoma, it would come in Tuesday’s final.
“It’s not something that I’ve even talked to [the players] about,” Boland said. “I’m certain that they would like the challenge. But at the same time we’re just trying to focus right now on Columbia, because we know we’re going to have our hands full and that they’re a tremendous team and have had a lot of success over the years, and this year in particular they have a lot of veterans.”
Virginia’s first match against Baylor was in the National ITA Team Indoors tournament, Feb. 14 in Chicago. They met again March 1 in Waco, where the Bears beat the `Hoos 5-2. Boland held Kwiatkowski and Ritschard out of that match, which was played indoors.
In 2013, UVa played a regular-season match in Urbana, Ill., where the last four rounds of the NCAA tournament were held later that spring. Virginia beat UCLA for the NCAA title that year.
“I think it always helps to acclimate yourself to the surrounding area and getting comfortable as to where you’re going to play, and kind of get that in your mindset,” Boland said.
He smiled. “I’ll be able to tell you a little bit more after the tournament whether that was effective this time around.”
Shane did not play against UCLA in the 2013 final, but he’ll never forget the experience. His brother Justin Shane was a junior on that Virginia team.
“That was a crazy feeling,” Ryan Shane recalled Monday. “NCAAs was a feeling I can’t even describe. It was probably one of the best moments of my life, running onto the court after Mitchell had saved match points [and clinched the title for UVa].
“It’s a feeling that I hope we can get again, and I think we have a pretty good chance to.”
Shane, who’s from Falls Church, said the `Hoos respect “all the other teams, but we definitely have confidence. I wouldn’t call it cockiness. I would just say we all feel really good. We’ve put in the work, and we all know what we can do. So we’ll see if we can get it done.”