Feb. 15, 2016
CHARLOTTESVILLE — With the championship trophy resting on a table a few feet away, soon to be hoisted by the North Carolina Tar Heels, Virginia men’s tennis coach Brian Boland offered reassuring words to and clasped hands with each of his players.
A remarkable streak ended Monday afternoon for UVA, which lost 4-2 to UNC in the final of the Intercollegiate Tennis Association’s National Team Indoors Championship at the Boar’s Head Sports Club.
Before falling to the Tar Heels, the Cavaliers had won 140 consecutive dual matches against ACC foes, the longest winning streak in conference history, in any sport. The run started with a victory over Wake Forest on May 14, 2006. Monday’s loss was Virginia’s first to an ACC opponent since April 23, 2006.
“Credit to North Carolina,” Boland said. “They just hung in there and gave themselves a chance to win in the end. It would have been very easy for them to look up at the scoreboard and go away, but they kept fighting on every court.”
The defending NCAA champion Wahoos, seeded No. 1 in the 16-team ITA tournament, defeated San Diego 4-0 in the first round, Wake Forest 4-3 in the quarterfinals, and TCU 4-1 in the semifinals, and the final could not have started much better for them.
UVA needed only 29 minutes to win the doubles point Monday, and junior J.C. Aragone’s victory in straight sets at No. 5 singles made the team score 2-0, to the delight of the fans who turned out in force on a cold, snowy day.
After the Tar Heels pulled to 2-1 with a win at No. 6 singles, the `Hoos appeared well-positioned for victories at Nos. 1 and 2, with senior Ryan Shane and junior Thai-Son Kwiatkowski, respectively. Moreover, sophomore Collin Altamirano led in the third set at No. 3. But Shane and Kwiatkowski each dropped a third-set tiebreaker, and suddenly UNC led 3-2.
At No. 4 singles, Virginia senior Mac Styslinger battled back after falling behind 4-0 in the third set, but Jack Murray held on to secure the ITA championship for Carolina (9-0).
“I would definitely rather lose here than in May, but it’s not something we want to do,” said Shane, the defending NCAA singles champion. “If we step back and look at it, it really came down to just a few shots.”
Boland said: “Perhaps the nerves and emotions got to us a little bit. But it was great for us. This is what you want early in the season. What an incredible environment, on a snowy Monday, to have this many people out here, cheering on the `Hoos and college tennis at a national indoor championship.”
The Cavaliers, who have captured this tournament five times (2008, ’09, ’10, ’11, ’13), were hoping to be crowned at the Boar’s Head for the first time since 2010. This was the Tar Heels’ first appearance in the championship match.
“They played really well,” Shane said. “It hurts, obviously, because we haven’t lost to an ACC team [since 2006], but I think we’ll be more driven and motivated to come back and be ready by May.”
Boland, who’s in his 15th season at Virginia, knew his program eventually would lose again to an ACC opponent, and he never obsessed over the streak.
“I think the reason we were able to get us to this point is because it really wasn’t something that was a focus,” said Boland, who has won two NCAA titles at Virginia. “I don’t think you win 140 matches [in a row] in the ACC over 10 years unless you can really focus on the job at hand, day in and day out.”
As disappointing as it was to lose to UNC, “I’m really proud of our team,” Boland said. “I thought we played remarkably well in terms of how we competed. Surely we can play better, but that’s the goal at the end of the season, come the ACC and NCAA championships. This was a tournament that we certainly always want to win, but it’s not what we’re aiming for.”
Had the Cavaliers been able to stretch their lead to 3-1 — and they had opportunities to do so — perhaps that “gets into [UNC’s] minds a little bit,” Boland said, “where there could be a panic button on one or two courts.”
Alas for the `Hoos, they never pushed UNC to the brink of defeat. And so the Heels were the ones celebrating when the final ended.
“A loss like this kind of wakes us up,” Shane said. “It’ll get us motivated. I feel like we’ll be ready to go, work on the things we need to work on, and be ready by May.”
NCAA tennis is employing a new scoring system this season, with the goal of speeding up matches. There will be “more upsets because of it, and that’s OK,” Boland told reporters.
“We have to embrace that, and I believe our players will grow from it and hopefully we can continue to get better and develop and take this loss as an opportunity to win down the road.”
The Cavaliers don’t play again until Feb. 27, when they meet Illinois in Champaign, Ill.
“It’s good to have this break now that we’ve had a chance to really kind of measure where we’re at against the best in the country,” Boland said. “I’m really pleased with what’s happening right now. We have great leadership, a tremendous culture, and I’m blessed to coach this team. These guys are winners up and down the lineup, and it’s just been so far an unbelievable journey, and I’m looking forward to the rest.”