May 15, 2016
CHARLOTTESVILLE — At No. 1 singles, Danielle Collins disposed of LSU’s Joana Vale Costa in straight sets (6-1, 6-2), after which came a more challenging assignment for the University of Virginia senior.
With the Cavaliers leading 2-0, Collins could do nothing but sit and watch and root for her teammates to finish off the Tigers in the NCAA tournament’s second round. Her wait seemed interminable at times.
“Sometimes I wish that the matches would go a little faster, so they’re not as nerve-wracking,” Collins said, “but some of these close matches are what makes college tennis so fun and exciting.”
There was plenty of drama Saturday at the Boar’s Head Sports Club, where 14th-seeded UVA met LSU at 3:45 p.m. after rain forced their match, originally scheduled for the Snyder Tennis Center, indoors.
The Tigers won at Nos. 5 and 6 singles to pull even, but freshman Meghan Kelley won in two sets at No. 4 to give Virginia a 3-2 lead. That left the Wahoos’ fate in the hands of two seniors: Julia Elbaba at No. 2 and senior Stephanie Nauta at No. 3.
Elbaba took command of her match in the third set and was moments away from securing the victory for the Cavaliers, but Nauta beat her to the finish line. When LSU’s Ryann Foster hit a forehand into the net, Nauta had a 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 win, and the `Hoos could celebrate a hard-earned triumph.
Watching from a few feet away, Collins had faith in her teammate, and Nauta was confident in herself, too.
“I think I’ve been in that situation so much that when it comes I just kind of get excited and focus on being aggressive and my game and what I have to do and what I did to get in that position,” Nauta said.
It occurred to Nauta, however much she might have wanted to banish such thoughts, that her UVA career could end Saturday.
“We had a great doubles point,” she said, “and then I’m in the singles and I’m having a rough time in the first set, and I’m like, `We’re not going out this way.’ So I really pulled it together and ended on a good note.”
Little came easily for the Cavaliers against LSU (19-12), but “we pushed through it and get to play another match and hopefully a couple more down the road,” said Collins, who won the NCAA singles title in 2014.
Virginia advances to the NCAA tournament’s round of 16 for the sixth consecutive year. UVA (18-10) will meet ACC champion North Carolina (31-2) on Thursday at 10 a.m. Eastern in Tulsa, Okla. UNC is the NCAA tourney’s No. 3 seed.
“I’m so happy for the seniors, who’ve put in so much, to be able to have another step and another experience,” Virginia head coach Mark Guilbeau said.
Also, Guilbeau said, for the team’s younger players — sophomore Cassie Mercer and freshmen Kelley and Erica Susi — “to experience [the Sweet Sixteen] right away is going to be huge for our program moving forward.”
The Cavaliers’ resilience has been tested this year. The departures of three players who began the season on the team left UVA with a scaled-down roster: four seniors (Collins, Elbaba, Nauta and Taylor Wingo), one sophomore (Mercer) and two freshmen (Kelley and Susi).
“I think we’ve overcome a lot of different issues,” Collins said. “It’s made a lot of people step up and improve and get stronger. I think we’ve accomplished a lot, and I think we’re going to be in good shape going into the round of 16.”
Guilbeau said: “This year obviously we’ve had to learn to do things the right way at the highest level, and I’m really proud that that’s been the most important part of our process. So this makes that extra special.
“We don’t have much margin [for error], and the kids respect that and know that, and they don’t look at that as a bad thing. It drives them to be the very best they can.”
From the start of doubles to the final singles point, the match lasted three hours and 28 minutes Saturday. LSU appeared on the verge of winning the doubles point, but Nauta and Mercer swung the momentum Virginia’s way. At No. 2 doubles, they saved four match points and eventually won a tiebreaker to put the `Hoos up 1-0.
“That was very crazy,” Nauta said. “It was tough. I was really happy that Cassie and I could pull it off. We’re really good together. I think we really flow well. In that position we really wanted it, so we took it.”
Kelley showed similar grit in singles. In the first set, after falling behind 5-2, she rallied to win 7-5. In the second set, which Kelley also won 7-5, nine of the 12 games went to deuce. Kelley took five of them.
“She did a great job of hanging in there to stay composed,” Guilbeau said.
Kelley said: “I was looking at the scoreboard the whole time, and I really wanted to finish the second set and not push it to the third.”
Guilbeau marveled at how much Kelley has “progressed with the offense in her game. She’s serving probably 15 miles an hour faster in her first serve, with better location, with the same percentage. Her second serve’s probably improved about 10 miles an hour, which is really hard to do, and then her strike forehand has become a huge weapon. She’s got a great future ahead of her, including in doubles.”
UVA and UNC will be meeting for the third time this season. On March 4, the Tar Heels edged the Cavaliers 4-3 at the Boar’s Head Sports Club. On April 23, Carolina defeated Virginia 4-1 in the ACC semifinals in Cary, N.C.
In the second match, Mercer suffered an ankle injury in singles and had to withdraw. She’s still not 100 percent, but that didn’t keep her off the court Saturday.
“Cassie’s done an amazing job to get back in there,” Guilbeau said. “If she can be a little bit healthier, I think that gives us a great chance.”