©Colette Lewis 2009--
College Station, TX--
The Ohio State Buckeyes will be playing for their first Men's NCAA Division I National Championship on Tuesday after a dramatic come from behind 4-3 win over UCLA Monday at the George Mitchell Tennis Center on the campus of Texas A & M University.
Across the nets will be the eighth-seeded University of Southern California Trojans, who knocked out the 2008 finalist University of Texas 4-1, sending home disappointed the many Burnt Orange-clad fans who had made the drive from Austin.
The Buckeyes, the No. 3 seeds, will have their work cut out for them. Not just because they are playing an excellent team who has found its stride this week, but because they are not likely to be 100% physically.
Justin Kronauge, who clinched the match for his team with a 5-7, 6-3, 6-4 victory over Harel Srugo at No. 3 singles, was cramping in the late stages of the final set, and needed an IV following the match. In addition, Ohio State's Matt Allare rolled his ankle in the fifth point of his second set tiebreaker with Holden Seguso, and didn't win another point.
Ohio State coach Ty Tucker initially sounded confident about Allare's ability to play on Wednesday.
"Allare will play tomorrow," said Tucker. "But that's what happens when you play three days in a row...I think he would have to have a broken bone not to play tomorrow's match. He's going to want to play and the energy of being in the national finals, the national championship match will have Matt Allare ready to play."
Then Tucker added, "that's what I hope. We'll see what happens."
UCLA needed the doubles point, and they got it, just as they had against Ole Miss in the quarterfinals. Nick Meister, who had clinched for the Bruins against the Rebels yesterday, played doubles, but coach Billy Martin said that Meister was not physically able to play singles after his three-hour contest Sunday.
The Buckeyes got the doubles point back quickly, with Steven Moneke defeating Haythem Abid 6-1, 6-3, but the Bruins racked up the next two, with Michael Look taking out Ohio State's Balazs Novak 6-4, 6-4 and Seguso beating Allare 6-3, 7-6(2). Buckeyes Brian Koniecko and Chase Buchanan had won first sets at the No. 1 and No. 6 spots, but Kronauge had failed to capitalize on sets points in the first in his match and needed to win the second to give his team any chance. He did, and with Buchanan's 6-3, 7-6(5) win over Amit Inbar at No. 6 and Koniecko's 6-1, 7-6(4) victory over Matt Brooklyn at No. 1, the stage was set.
This was not unfamiliar territory for the junior from Dayton. In last year's NCAA round of 16 in Tulsa, Kronauge had won a third set tiebreaker against Illinois in the last match on, while cramping. Today, he received medical attention at 4-4 in the third set, after both players had failed to convert multiple break point opportunities in the previous games.
After Kronauge's medical timeout, Srugo played a very nervous game, double faulting twice, the second time on game point, and was broken at love. With Kronauge noticeably struggling with his left leg, and unable to put anything on his serve, the final game was a strange one. Kronauge took a 30-0 lead, but made two errors, got a match point with a forehand winner, lost that with another error. At deuce Srugo hit a backhand long, and on his second match point, Kronauge was finally able to collapse with relief after putting away a volley.
"I had to hit my forehand," Kronauge said. "I think he got a little nervous and put balls in my strike zone. That really helped me."
"We escaped with the win," said Tucker. "After (three) years of losing in the quarterfinals, we caught a big break today. Srugo got a little tentative when Kronauge was cramping and left balls in the middle of the court. Kronauge was able to tag them and made about 85% of them."
Billy Martin gave credit to Kronauge for his effort in the final few games.
"You have to take your hat off to him," said Martin. "He kept his cool, took his time and used his forehand, went for his forehand and really did a great job with it."
Kronauge said there's no question that he'll play on Tuesday.
"I'll try as hard as I can," he said. "It's just one more match, hopefully I'll be ready."
While the Buckeyes going for their first title, the Trojans will be seeking their fifth since the dual match format was adopted in 1977. All four national championship teams, including the last one, who won the title in College Station in 2002, were coached by Dick Leach, so current coach Peter Smith is in the same position as Tucker, looking for his first.
With the doubles point, the Trojans were confident going into the singles and although it was 12th seed Texas who put the first singles point on the board, with Kellen Damico's 6-1, 6-3 win at No. 3, USC had five first sets in their side of the ledger.
At No. 1, Robert Farah was down a break at 1-3 in the first, then didn't lose another game until he was ahead 3-0 in the second on his way to a 6-3, 6-4 win over Dimitar Kutrovsky at No. 1. Steve Johnson made it 3-1 USC with a 6-2, 6-1 victory over Ed Corrie at No. 2, and as Smith said later, his team was ready for the win.
"It feels great. I've probably did as little coaching today as I've done all season. I just felt like my team wasn't going to be denied. From our No. 3 doubles, it was our best doubles point this year, and once we got going in singles we kind of rode the coattails of Steve Johnson and Robert Farah. And at that point, it was who was going to clinch it.'
It turned out to be freshman Matt Kecki at No. 5, although Daniel Nguyen at No. 6 also had match points against Miguel Reyes Varela of Texas on the other end of the grandstand courts. Kecki had taken the first set from Josh Zavala, lost the second, but really picked it up in the third set.
"I have a pretty good three set record this year," he said. "I got a little tight in that second set towards the end. I was up 40-0 in my service game at 3-3 and lost three straight games. Then Amend (volunteer assistant Eric) came over and told me that we were up on the other two courts and that helped a lot to relieve the pressure and I was able to just go out there and play. It was the exact opposite of my opponent, he was uptight because he knew he had to win that match."
The match went to Kecki 6-2, 3-6, 6-1 and the Trojans had secured a 4-1 victory.
The advantage that Texas had hoped to use in their familiarity with the heat and humidity in their part of the country never materialized, with sunny skies, low humidity and moderate breezes making for Southern California-like weather instead.
"USC played better than we did today," said Texas coach Michael Center. "They deserved to win. I knew it was going to be a really challenging match. They were just a little better than us today."
The men's finals will air live on ESPNU at 2:00 p.m. CDT Tuesday.
For complete results, see the aggieathletics website.
Monday, May 18, 2009