By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — A sense of inevitability often surrounds Virginia’s matches at the Snyder Tennis Center in the first two rounds of the NCAA men’s tournament.
The Cavaliers invariably are heavy favorites, and the final scores of their victories rarely are close. So it was on Sunday, when UVA, the tournament’s No. 1 seed, eliminated Penn State 4-1 on a blustery afternoon to advance to the Sweet Sixteen for the 13th consecutive season.
On Friday, at 1 p.m. Eastern, defending NCAA champion Virginia (26-4) meets No. 16 seed Oklahoma State (20-7) in Tulsa, Okla. A victory would send the Wahoos to the NCAA quarterfinals for the 12th straight year, and the Cowboys will be underdogs. The `Hoos know, however, that a repeat of their Sunday performance might mean a short stay for them in Tulsa.
“We’re going to need to play better than that and finish matches,” Virginia head coach Brian Boland said.
The Sweet Sixteen is “where the tournament kind of changes,” said UVA junior J.C. Aragone, who plays No. 3 doubles (with sophomore Collin Altamirano) and No. 5 singles.
“It’s a whole different experience. It’s great to play the first couple rounds on our courts, which is awesome, but it’s just kind of a relief to get through that and be able to go to Tulsa for the next couple matches.”
After winning the doubles point Sunday, Virginia picked up singles victories from junior Thai-Son Kwiatkowski at No. 3 and sophomore Alexander Ritschard at No. 4 to take a commanding 3-0 lead.
But the Nittany Lions (22-9) refused to fold. At No. 1, Leo Stakhovsky upset Virginia senior Ryan Shane, the defending NCAA singles champion, 7-5, 7-6. On the next court, at No. 2 singles, Altamirano won the first set 6-4 but failed to convert on five match points in the second.
Altamirano’s match went to a second-set tiebreaker, as did the matches of the other Cavaliers still playing, Aragone at No. 5 and sophomore Henrik Wiersholm at No. 6.
“We made it a little bit harder for ourselves than I thought we needed to,” Boland said, “but at the same time I liked how we played the first half of the match, and then for whatever reason we struggled to finish, and we were out there a little bit longer. But credit to Penn State. They kept battling, and they made it hard for us.”
Virginia’s first-round match, a 4-0 win over Monmouth, lasted only 92 minutes. Sunday’s match was closing in on 150 minutes when Aragone sealed it for Virginia, winning his tiebreaker 8-6.
“It got a little [stressful] there at the end,” Kwiatkowski said. “We had a few chances to finish it on a few different courts and weren’t able to get it done. But J.C. came up clutch in that breaker, and it was really good tennis on Court 5.”
No Cavalier played better than Kwiatkowski on Sunday. He blitzed Matt Barry 6-1, 6-0 in a rematch of their 2014 encounter. In that match, also in the NCAA tourney’s second round in Charlottesville, Barry won the first set 6-4 and was leading 4-2 in the second when Virginia clinched the team victory.
“If we had finished the match, he probably would have beaten me,” Kwiatkowski said Sunday. “So I knew he was a really good player going into the match, and I just needed to focus and try to play my game, and today I just played really well.”
Kwiatkowski improved his singles record this season to 33-7.
“Thai’s in a good place right now,” Boland said, “there’s no question about it: focused, free, playing with a lot of enjoyment and enthusiasm. I’m really impressed with where he’s at, and the same goes for Alexander Ritschard. And there’s some others I think are just a click away. We’re close, and we have a very good team that we’re bringing into Tulsa.”
Ritschard posted an 8-0 singles record in the fall before a shoulder injury sidelined him. He made his spring debut Saturday against Monmouth and won his singles match 6-1, 6-2.
The Cavaliers are thrilled to have Ritschard back. This weekend marked “the first time we’ve played our entire lineup all season,” Boland said.
“I know how strong it is. It’s just a matter of us putting it all together. We had just enough today, and we’ll be even better come Friday.”
Asked what he wanted to see from his team in the round of 32, Boland said, “I hoped to see what we saw the first half of the match. I thought the guys played really freely and they hit their shots, and I thought Thai played incredible tennis, and of course Alexander Ritschard is just rolling. So that’s a big boost for our team. We’ve been missing him all year long. He’s one of our best players, and here he steps in and he’s playing some great tennis right away, which doesn’t surprise me. He’s been playing well for a few weeks.
“So that’s a big boost for us, but we have some other guys that I know will elevate their games come Friday. We’re going to need to do that. I guess I expected a little bit more today in the latter half of the match. It didn’t happen. But that’s OK. It will give us something to focus and work on … We’ll be ready come Friday.”
In his final home appearance as a Cavalier, Shane teamed with junior Luca Corinteli to win 6-3 at No. 1 doubles. Singles did not go as well for Shane, who struggled Saturday too in a match that was not completed.
“Probably not the way I wanted to go out individually, but I think as a team it was definitely a good win,” Shane said. “Penn State came out with a lot of energy, a lot of fight.”
Shane served well Sunday, “which is really what his game revolves around,” Boland said. “He just didn’t play well off the ground and didn’t execute. He had some opportunities to finish both sets.
“He’ll be there for us when it matters down the stretch here. But today was not his day. We need him to step up here in the next match, and I know he will. He’s a veteran.”
Weather conditions were less than ideal Sunday on an unseasonably cool afternoon, but that was fine with Boland.
“The winds were gusting at times, and we’re going to have it no different in Tulsa,” he said. “Tulsa, Oklahoma, certainly isn’t a place where you know what you’re going to expect in terms of weather. The winds are gusting all the time, and you might be indoors, outdoors, you never know … So we’ll have to be ready for anything.”