May 23, 2017
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ATHENS, Ga. — After the final point, as his players mobbed each other on the court where senior J.C. Aragone had clinched the NCAA men’s tennis title for the University of Virginia, head coach Brian Boland sprinted about 50 yards in the opposite direction Tuesday night.
In that moment, Boland had one objective: to locate his wife in the stands at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex’s indoor facility.
“I had to go find her,” Boland said later. “Becky has been at my side all 21 years of my head coaching career.”
Once they’d shared a tearful embrace, Boland raced back onto the court, picking up speed as he neared his players.
“How `bout those `Hoos?” Boland yelled as he leaped into the arms of senior Thai-Son Kwiatkowski.
He found the answer in the frenzied scene around him, as players, coaches, family members and fans celebrated together.
Four times ACC rivals Virginia and North Carolina met this season. Each time the Cavaliers triumphed, with their final victory over UNC the most memorable. In a match delayed for three hours and then moved indoors because of bad weather Tuesday, the second-seeded Wahoos outlasted the ninth-seeded Tar Heels 4-2.
“To beat a team as good as them four times in the same year is so difficult,” Boland said.
The NCAA title was the Cavaliers’ third straight and fourth in five seasons. That it came in Athens made the feat even more meaningful for UVA, which has experienced more than its share of misery on the campus of the University of Georgia.
In each of its first four trips to this city for the NCAA tournament, Virginia lost. The `Hoos fell in the NCAA final in 2012 and in semifinals in 2007, ’10 and ’14.
“I love Athens now,” Boland said, smiling.
He may never forget his final trip to Georgia as the Cavaliers’ coach. The NCAA singles and doubles tournaments start here Wednesday and Thursday. When they end, Boland will leave UVA to become head of men’s tennis for USTA Player Development.
He’s had a remarkable run in Charlottesville. Virginia is one of only four schools to have won three (or more) consecutive NCAA titles in men’s tennis, along with UCLA (1952-54), Southern California (1962-64, 1966-69, 2009-12), and Stanford (1988-90, 1995-98).
“I’m just really grateful for the opportunity I’ve had over the last 16 years,” Boland said.
His accomplishments at Virginia, where his teams won four NCAA championships, 12 ACC titles, six ITA crowns and 453 matches in his 16 seasons, may never be equaled. His final team finished with a 34-1 record.
“I couldn’t ask for a better group of guys to end my collegiate coaching career with,” Boland said.
Seven of those players took the court Tuesday, including senior Luca Corinteli and freshman Carl Soderlund at No. 1 doubles, Kwiatkowski and fellow senior Alexander Ritschard at No. 2 doubles, and junior Collin Altamirano and Aragone at No. 3 doubles.
UVA’s singles lineup consisted of Ritschard at No. 1, Kwiatkowski at No. 2, Soderlund at No. 3, Altamirano at No. 4, Aragone at No. 5, and junior Henrik Wiersholm at No. 6. Collectively, they put together one more unforgettable performance.
“It’s all about the players and the relationships they have with one another and the culture that they have built,” Boland said. “I’m just so proud of these guys. They deserve everything they get. They work hard each and every day. They play for something bigger than themselves, and I’m just so proud to be part of it, and I appreciate what these guys have done to allow me to be part of the journey. It’s been amazing.”
The match, as is usually the case when UVA and UNC meet, was fiercely contested.
In doubles, the Cavaliers needed only 23 minutes to win at No. 3, and four minutes later the Heels (29-5) won at No. 1. The match at No. 2 took nearly an hour, but with the crucial doubles point at stake, Kwiatkowski and Ritschard rallied to win a tiebreaker and put Virginia ahead 1-0.
Georgia’s indoor facility has only four courts, so Aragone and Wiersholm were spectators when singles started at 5:05 p.m. By then, the rain had moved on and the sun was shining outside, but a match that had begun indoors would end there, too.
Of the three Cavaliers who won in singles, Ritschard’s victory at No. 1 was the most unexpected. His UNC opponent, Ronnie Schneider, was named the Intercollegiate Tennis Association’s men’s senior player of the year Tuesday.
In the ACC tournament semifinals April 29 in Rome, Georgia, Schneider defeated Ritschard in straight sets. In the rematch, however, Ritschard stunned Schneider, winning 6-1, 6-3 to give the Cavaliers a 2-0 lead.
“I would say my mindset was a lot different than what it was at ACCs,” Ritschard said. “I just really focused on playing for the team … The team is everything. We are very close and we genuinely love each other, and it’s so much fun being out there with all of your friends.”
Ritschard dropped a close match Monday in the NCAA semifinals to Ohio State’s Mikael Torpegaard, who’s ranked No. 2 nationally. Ritschard would not be denied Tuesday.
“He kept plugging away and he was so resilient,” Boland said. “He just kept believing, and I’m just so proud of him.”
At No. 4 singles, Altamirano also won in straight sets, and the Cavaliers led 3-2 when Aragone and Wiersholm finally took the court. Against Ohio State, in another match that was affected by rain, Wiersholm had clinched the victory for Virginia. Against UNC, that distinction went to Aragone, who won in straight sets.
No surprise there. Aragone also closed out the ITA National Team Indoor Championship and the ACC finals for the `Hoos, whose only loss this season was to Wake Forest.
“I always call this guy the biggest warrior that I’ve ever coached,” Boland said. “J.C. Aragone, all he does is come through. He’s Mr. Clutch.”
During his match, Aragone said, he gave no thought to the fact that Boland was coaching Virginia for the last time. Still, Aragone said, “I really think everything he’s taught us, especially in those crucial moments, it shows up, and that’s what helped me get through my match, and I know it helped other guys get through theirs.”
Jenkins starred on the 2013 team, the first from UVA to win an NCAA tennis title.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling to see us take another one,” Jenkins said amid the extended on-court celebration Tuesday night.
Later, at the press conference, Ritschard talked about his growth as a player and a person at UVA and said, “I’m very grateful for everything the University and the coaches have given me.”
Boland was grateful, too. In his post-match remarks, he thanked, among others, his family, his players, his assistant coaches, athletics director Craig Littlepage, the University, and the Charlottesville community. Boland also praised his fellow coaches at UVA, including Tony Bennett and Brian O’Connor.
“I feel so lucky to have learned and grown from them,” Boland said.
He and his wife talked often, Boland said, about how special it would be to punctuate his tenure with a fourth NCAA championship. They knew how difficult reaching that goal would be, but the storybook ending did not elude them.
“I couldn’t have scripted it any better,” Boland said.