May 25, 2016
CHARLOTTESVILLE — If you sent Brian Boland a congratulatory text message late Tuesday and have yet to hear back from him, don’t fret.
As of mid-morning Wednesday, he was still running “a few hundred texts behind,” Boland said by phone from Tulsa, Okla.
Such are the challenges an NCAA champion faces. Boland is head coach of the University of Virginia men’s tennis team, whose reign in the college world will continue for at least another year.
Virginia (30-4) captured its second straight NCAA title — and third in four seasons — with a 4-1 victory over Oklahoma indoors at the Michael D. Case Tennis Center.
Sophomore Henrik Wiersholm clinched the championship for the Wahoos, winning a second-set tiebreaker at No. 6 singles and triggering what has become a familiar scene in NCAA tennis.
“I just love more than anything else having the opportunity to watch these guys celebrate after they’ve worked so hard,” Boland said, “because I know what they’ve been through.”
Top-seeded UVA’s run in the 64-team tournament started May 14 with a 4-0 win over Monmouth at the Snyder Tennis Center in Charlottesville. A 4-1 victory over Penn State followed, also in Charlottesville, and then the `Hoos headed west.
In Tulsa, Virginia defeated No. 16 seed Oklahoma State 4-2, No. 9 seed Florida 4-0, No. 13 seed California 4-0 and, finally, the 11th-seeded Sooners, who finished as NCAA runners-up for the third straight season.
“I certainly would not say that any of the matches were easy,” Boland said, “but I was really pleased with how well the guys performed throughout the entire tournament. They certainly saved their best tennis for the end of the season, which is always our goal.”
In 2015, in Waco, Texas, the Cavaliers upended top-seeded Oklahoma 4-1 for the NCAA title with much the same lineup that played for them Tuesday night in Tulsa. But Virginia had to clear several major obstacles en route to its latest championship.
In February, UVa’s record streak of 140 straight dual-match victories over ACC opponents ended with a loss to North Carolina at the National Team Indoor Championships at the Boar’s Head Sports Club.
In April, UVA fell again to UNC, this time in Chapel Hill. Three weeks later, the `Hoos lost to Wake Forest in the ACC tournament final, ending their streak of nine consecutive conference titles.
“It’s [been] a really, really long year, lots of ups and downs, a lot of growing pains, I think, as a team,” junior Luca Corinteli told reporters Tuesday night, “even though we returned most of our starters and the majority of our team. That’s what makes it so special at the end. We dealt with a bunch of adversity, we had a target on our back the entire year, we embraced it really well, and it makes you feel so much better right now.”
Boland entered 2015-16 knowing he would have to replace Mitchell Frank, the lone senior on last year’s team. “But what we did not expect,” Boland said, “is for Alexander Ritschard not to be healthy for most of the season. So that was another obstacle to overcome.”
Ritschard, a sophomore, posted an 8-0 singles record in the fall before a shoulder injury sidelined him. He didn’t return until the NCAA tournament, in which he made an enormous contribution. Playing No. 4 singles, Ritschard posted a 4-0 record. (Two of his singles matches were still in progress when Virginia clinched victories.)
“He certainly created depth for us that we would not have otherwise had,” Boland said. “Alexander was critical to our success.”
Ritschard’s absence during the regular season “was a big adjustment for the team,” Boland said, “but it also gave a number of guys opportunities to step up and play in some tough situations, and I think that allowed them to really develop and be more prepared for what we faced this past week.”
Thai-Son Kwiatkowski, a junior who played No. 3, posted a team-best 5-0 singles record in the NCAA tournament.
“He really stayed focused throughout the tournament,” Boland said. “One of the things I was so pleased about with Thai’s development is he’s become a much more composed player under pressure. He’s an extremely emotional guy, and he’s worked extremely hard to stay more centered throughout the course of a match, and I’m just really pleased with him, and I’m happy for his success and what he was able to bring to the team over the entire year.”
NCAA tournaments, of course, have not always ended so happily for the Cavaliers. After losing in the semifinals in 2007, ’08 and ’10, they fell in the final in ’11 and ’12. Still, Boland never lost hope.
“I had a lot of encouragement from a number of people that I was close to,” he said, “from colleagues within the athletic department at UVA to supporters that really believed in our process and what we were doing to build the program.
“So that was extremely encouraging, and I certainly believed that our day would come. But you just never know. So you just keep trying to knock down that door. Fortunately for us it came when it was least expected in 2013, and I think that certainly propelled us to where we are today.”
In 2013, in a heart-stopping NCAA final, UVA edged UCLA 4-3 for the title in Urbana, Ill.
“I think the first one was more of a relief, to be honest, after what we had been through as a program,” Boland said.
There was less drama in Waco last year and in Tulsa on Tuesday night. Even so, Boland said, some aspects of the experience remain constant.
“The best part about this is you bring a group of young men together and you try to get them to embrace a process that you believe in, and when they do the work and they stay the course through both the peaks and the valleys of the season, you just love to see them succeed and have the opportunity to celebrate together due to all their hard work,” Boland said.
“As a coach, you know what they’ve been through, and every season has challenges, so this was a great achievement for these young men who’ve really grown together this year and were a true team.”
The Cavaliers’ pursuit of a third consecutive NCAA championship will start soon. Virginia’s lineup included only two seniors Tuesday night: Ryan Shane, who played No. 1 singles and, with Corinteli, No. 1 doubles; and Mac Styslinger, who played No. 2 doubles with Kwiatkowski.
“You have to start looking forward, because the work has to start right away,” Shane told reporters Tuesday night. “It’s a full year of work to win a championship like this. You give yourself the best chance to win it with your preparation. I think that’s what we did this year.”
And so the `Hoos were again crowned kings of NCAA tennis. Back in Charlottesville, some 1,150 miles from Tulsa, Boland’s colleagues applauded his latest feat.
“These coaches at UVA are unbelievable,” Boland said. “I don’t think there’s one coach I haven’t heard from, which says a lot for our culture. It’s really remarkable.”
Among those who reached out to Boland was Dom Starsia, whose historic tenure as UVA men’s lacrosse coach ended this week.
“Dom was absolutely amazing throughout the entire tournament, and there was not a day that went by where he didn’t text me and encourage me, and he’s been like that my entire career at Virginia,” Boland said.
“He’s a huge inspiration to me, and he’s always been an incredible friend and supporter. I love that man.”
Others who texted Boland included his close friends Tony Bennett and Brian O’Connor. Under Bennett, the UVA men’s basketball team has won 89 of its past 108 games. O’Connor guided the UVA baseball team to its first NCAA championship last year.
As of Wednesday morning, Boland had not responded to either Bennett or O’Connor. He knew, however, what he would tell O’Connor.
“3-1, baby!” Boland said with a laugh, referring to their respective NCAA titles. “It’s always a competition with us. Come on and get to work.”