©Colette Lewis 2008--
Two teams that had endured prolonged bouts of illness and injury during the season found their form at just the right time, with the UCLA Bruins taking their first women's championship with a 4-0 win over Cal-Berkeley Tuesday afternoon and the Georgia Bulldogs successfully defending their 2007 title with a 4-2 victory over Texas Tuesday night at the Michael Case Tennis Center on the campus of the University of Tulsa.
Cal coach Amanda Augustus commented that the Pac 10 clash between her team, seeded eighth, and No. 7 seed UCLA may have been the longest 4-0 match in history, and there's no doubt the final score was deceiving. It took nearly an hour and a half for UCLA to take the doubles point with a win at No. 3, after Cal had won at No. 2 and UCLA at No. 1. Fortunately, weather conditions were ideal, with temperatures in the upper 70s and little humidity or wind, so the four-hour competition was more emotionally than physically draining.
In singles, the first sets were 3-2 in favor of UCLA, with the match at No. 2 between Tracy Lin and Marina Cossou at 5-5 in the first. But by the time Cossou had taken it in a tiebreaker, UCLA had posted its second win, with senior Alex McGoodwin taking out Bojana Bobusic 6-4, 6-1 at No. 6. With UCLA leading 2-0, it looked as if Bruin senior Liz Lumpkin would give her team a comfortable 3-0 lead when she was serving up 6-2, 5-2 at No. 5, but Cal's Stephanie Kusano won the next five games to earn an split, a big psychological boost for her team.
At No. 1, Bruin senior Riza Zalameda had fought back to even her match with Susie Babos after dropping the first set 6-3, taking the second by the same score. At No. 4, Andrea Remynse had managed to take the first set in a tiebreaker from Claire Ilcinkas, and then quickly went up 4-0 in the second set. Again, there was no sense the contest was over, and it wasn't, as Ilcinkas took a medical timeout when down 5-0 and came back to win the next two games.
But Zalameda had taken control of her match with Babos, and in the blink of an eye, both she and Remynse had reached match point.
"At my first match point, I heard everyone in an uproar," said Zalameda, who was separated from the finish on Remynse's court by two other matches still in progress. "And I double faulted, I just got so scared. But the next point, I just knew this was my time. Time for UCLA, time for history."
As McGoodwin, Remynse and other team members and coaches rushed toward Court 1 to celebrate their first title in six trips to the final, including last year's 4-2 loss to Georgia Tech, Zalameda savored it all.
"It was just a dream come true," said Zalameda, the tournament's Most Outstanding Player. "I went down to my knees, and I looked at my teammates and they were running towards me. That's the moment I've been dreaming of. My teammates, my family, it was so fun, it was great. I couldn't ask for more."
With Yasmin Schnack out for a substantial portion of the dual season with a hamstring injury and McGoodwin also injured during the season, coach Stella Sampras Webster's team, at one point ranked No. 2 in the country, suffered five losses. But she never believed they were anything but the best team in country.
"This was just our year to win it," said Sampras Webster, who received a text message of congratulations from her brother Pete. "Even with the most talent, it's still difficult to win the national championship. This team dealt with the pressure and the high expectations, the adversity, in such a great way, and that's why they won this championship, because of the maturity and experience I have on this team. With four seniors, they led this team."
First-year Cal coach Augustus admitted that the defeat stung, but having reached the semifinals last year and the finals this year, likes the progression the Bears are making.
"It's not going to be a tough sell," she said of reaching the ultimate goal of a title. "We have a good portion of the team coming back, and they are a very motivated group of young women. I think this team, when they get over being upset that they lost this match, is going to be proud that they are going to go down in history as the first Cal women's team to make the NCAA finals."
The Georgia Bulldogs could certainly sympathize with UCLA's injury problems, as Christian Vitulli, Travis Helgeson, Luis Flores and Javier Garrapiz all were out for chunks of the season due to injury and illness. In Flores' case, it was not one, but two stress fractures this winter, but both healed in time for the senior to return to competition in late March.
With three losses on their record this year, there were no comparisons made to the 2007 National Championship team, which went undefeated and dominated opponents throughout their run to the title, claimed at home in Athens. Without Flores in the lineup, Georgia surrendered their National Indoor crown to Virginia in February, but the Bulldogs refused to surrender their NCAA crown, roaring back from the doubles point loss to both Virginia in the semifinals and Texas in the final to take 4-2 victories from each and capture the program's sixth NCAA team championship.
"I was out of words for what these guys accomplished tonight," said coach Manny Diaz, who has coached four of the six NCAA championship teams. "I probably did less coaching today than I've ever done. I saw it in their eyes yesterday. They competed like true champions."
After dropping the doubles point with losses at the No. 2 and No. 3 positions, Georgia took only three first sets in the singles. Had the match ended there, Texas would be returning to Austin with the trophy. But at No. 1 singles, Travis Helgeson, playing against the team he competed for in 2005 and 2006 before transferring to Georgia, fought back against Dimitar Kutrovsky, taking the second set.
Texas had taken a 2-0 lead when Miguel Reyes Varela dropped Vitulli 6-4, 6-3 at No. 6, but Nate Schnugg had countered for the Bulldogs with a 6-4, 6-2 win over good friend Kellen Damico at No. 2, avenging his loss to the freshman at the Team Indoor. Jamie Hunt pulled Georgia even with a 6-1, 6-4 victory over Luis Diaz Barriga at No. 4, and Garrapiz had just earned a split with Longhorn Milan Mihailovic at No. 5.
Flores had dropped his second set to Ed Corrie at No. 3, but had an early break in the third. Helgeson, however, was down 3-1 to Kutrovsky in their third set, so it appeared the deciding match might be Garrapiz and Mihailovic, which was just beginning the final set.
That was before Helgeson reeled off five straight games.
"I was just focusing on trying to get some rhythm, some momentum back," said Helgeson of his performance early in the final set. "I was struggling with my serve, I wasn't holding very easily, wasn't getting a high percentage of first serves and was forcing the issue too much. He's got an unbelievable return and the ball stays so flat and so low, that it's very tough to handle. I just wanted to get that break back and get a good solid hold, and that's what I did. Once I got up in the set, I felt I had a chance to close it out."
Helgeson closed out not just his match, by a 4-6, 6-2, 6-3 score, but also the season and the title, as moments before, Flores had completed his 6-3, 1-6, 6-1 win over Corrie. Flores barely had time to join his teammates on the sidelines of court one before the celebration began.
"For Luis and I to lead them through this match is just an unbelievable moment for us," said Helgeson. "Last year it was kind of who could get done first. Now it's much different circumstances. This year is special because of all the issues, the adversity we've had to overcome and the challenges."
"It was a terrific journey this year. I don't want to compare, but I think this year tastes a little bit sweeter because of all the ups and downs, and the big shoes that we had to fill. But in the end we pulled it through and it was great the way we competed."
Texas coach Michael Center credited Georgia for the late surge that ended the match.
"They made more plays down the stretch. We lost to a great team, so there's nothing to hang our head over. I'm disappointed, I thought we had a chance, but I have to give Georgia the credit."
Consecutive national titles are rare, with only five other teams accomplishing it, but for Georgia there was something even more special about the 2008 championship. It is the first time they have taken the title away from Athens.
"They can't say we can only win it in Athens anymore," Diaz told the crowd after accepting the trophy on behalf of his team and the university.
Tuesday, May 20, 2008