©Colette Lewis 2012--
As rare as the snowstorm blanketing the Charlottesville area Sunday was, it wasn't nearly as unusual as what went on inside the Boar's Head Sports Club Sunday afternoon.
After compiling a streak of 94 consecutive wins at home, the University of Virginia Cavaliers lost, falling to No. 3 seed Ohio State 4-1 in the semifinals of the ITA Men's Team Indoor championships and ending their quest for a fifth consecutive title.
And the University of Southern California's appearance in Monday's championship match, after a hard-fought 4-1 win over the University of Georgia in the day's first match, is also as rare as a snowball fight between Trojans. It was over 20 years ago that Southern California last appeared in the final of the National Indoor Team Championships.
After breezing through a 45-minute doubles point against No. 4 Georgia, with easy wins at No. 1 and No. 2, it looked as if top seed USC would handle the Bulldogs as easily as they had taken out Tennessee and Duke in the first two rounds. But once the singles started, the Trojans knew they had a match on their hands, and with Georgia taking four first sets in singles--Wil Spencer at 2, KU Singh at 3, Ignacio Taboada at 4 and Nathan Pasha at 6--USC would need a third-set win on one of those courts.
Pasha made sure it wasn't Roberto Quiroz playing the hero for USC, as the Georgia freshman posted a 6-3, 6-1 win to make it 1-1. But on Court 4, Quiroz's cousin, Emilio Gomez, took the second set from Taboada, and USC took it from there. Raymond Sarmiento took the second set from Spencer, and Nguyen came from a break down in the second set against Singh to also earn a third set. When USC's Yannick Hanfmann posted a win over Hernus Pieters at line 5, after trailing 3-0 in the second, to make it 2-1 USC, Gomez quickly followed, beating Taboada 3-6, 6-2, 6-2 to make it 3-1 USC, and suddenly the Trojans' prospects were much brighter.
Singh had a two-break lead over Nguyen at 3, and at 2, Sarmiento was up a break over Spencer in the third, meaning Steve Johnson had an opportunity to clinch for USC at 1, leading Sadio Doumbia 6-4, 5-4, on serve in the second. Doumbia had played well throughout the match, using some excellent volleying and net play to stay within striking distance of the 2011 NCAA champion. But serving at 5-5, he came up with his worst game of the match, and when he shanked a forehand at 15-40 to give Johnson a 6-5 lead, his water bottle went flying into the next court at the changeover, leading to a point penalty.
With a 15-0 lead to start, Johnson recovered his service stroke, which had temporarily deserted him in the second set, and a service winner and an ace brought him to match point. He missed his first serve, but hit a kicker out wide for a second serve ace, clinching the 4-1 win for the Trojans.
"I think that's the first time I've clinched a match in the Indoors or the NCAAs," Johnson said. "I'm pretty sure that's it, though we haven't won too many matches at the Indoors, I guess. It's great, I'm happy to finish a match. I don't think I played my best tennis today, but when it was time to get down to the nuts and bolts, I played real solid, back to the tennis I know I can play."
Johnson realizes he will be getting the best shot from every opponent this spring, with his NCAA title and 44-match collegiate winning streak that extends back to the spring of 2010.
"I feel like guys come out with nothing to lose...and I know they're going to come out and give me their best tennis," said Johnson, who is planning on playing the qualifying tournament at Indian Wells next month. "I've got to be ready for that on a daily basis. But at this point, I'm just going out there to play tennis, not thinking about winning or losing. I want the team to win, and hopefully I can keep doing the right things."
USC head coach Peter Smith said learned something about his team after the first sets went against them in four matches.
"I thought we would have the advantage at doubles, and the advantage at a couple of (singles) spots, and I thought the rest would be a dogfight," said Smith, who was coaching in his first Team Indoor semifinal. "I was really proud. I just sat back and said, okay, how hard are we going to fight, let's see us. And we really showed we have the heart of a champion out there."
While the final Monday of the Team Indoor is a new experience for Southern California, Virginia will now be wondering how to spend their President's Day holiday, which in five of the previous seven years was spent competing for the title.
Another large crowd, similar to the thousand supporters who buoyed second seed Virginia to a victory over Stanford on Saturday night, braved the slush and winter storm warnings to support the Cavaliers. But for the second night in a row, the orange and blue-clad fans couldn't help their team to a win in the doubles point, although they were oh so close to taking it.
All three doubles courts were extremely close throughout, with Ohio State's Devin McCarthy and Ille Van Engelen holding on to their break to beat Alex Domijan and Philippe Oudshoorn 8-6 at line 2. By that time, the remaining two courts were heading for tiebreakers, and Virginia's Drew Courtney and Jarmere Jenkins came up with a 9-8(2) decision over the nation's top-ranked team of Chase Buchanan and Blaz Rola. On court three, Ohio State's Connor Smith and Peter Kobelt were well into their tiebreaker with Mitchell Frank and Julien Uriguen, with the crowd all on its feet to watch the last few points. Trailing 4-5, Frank cranked a service winner to make it 5-5, but he double faulted to give Smith a chance to serve out the match. After consulting with head coach Ty Tucker, Smith hit a sly kick serve up the middle, and the Buckeyes had the lead.
In singles, Virginia was unable to pull away from Ohio State as they had from Stanford late in the first sets Saturday night. Every match was 5-5 at one stage of the first set, and when they were all completed, three had been decided in tiebreakers and the other three by 7-5 scores. Ohio State had taken four of those first sets, with Buchanan at 1, Rola at 2, McCarthy at 5 and, in the biggest surprise, Kobelt at 3, were in position to dethrone the four-time defending champions.
Kobelt's 7-5 first set win over No. 1-ranked Frank was a huge psychological boost for the Buckeyes and their several dozen fans, who could not have anticipated that kind of performance from the unranked sophomore, although Ohio State head coach Ty Tucker was not surprised that the 6-foot-7 Ohioan prevailed.
"Obviously everybody's going to be shocked with the win of Kobelt over Frank," said Tucker. "But when Kobelt serves well, he's one of the best players in the country, which he proved today."
But before Kobelt could record his stunning 7-5, 7-6(6) win over Frank, teammate McCarthy had given Ohio State a 2-0 lead with a 7-6(3), 6-0 victory over Justin Shane at line 5. Virginia's Courtney posted a 7-6(5), 7-5 victory over Van Engelen at 4 to make it 2-1, but it would be the last point of the night for the Cavaliers. In the tiebreaker on court 3, Frank saved one match point with a good return, but on the second, Frank's forehand clipped the net and landed wide to make it 3-1 Virginia.
Jenkins and Buchanan were in a tight second set at 1, with Buchanan up 7-5, 5-4, with Jenkins serving. Jenkins held, broke and held to send that match to a third set, and the crowd celebrated loudly as Jenkins did a deep knee-bend fist pump. On court 6, Smith had taken the second set from Uriguen but the Cavalier junior had a 3-1 lead in the third. When Jenkins got an early break over Buchanan in the third, hope for the final three points was reasonable, but Domijan, who had forced a third set at 2, needed to break Rola to get some kind of advantage. Unfortunately for the Cavalier faithful, it was Domijan who was broken, with Rola somehow getting to a net cord serve that should have been a fluke ace and turning into a point after a long rally, and then Domijan clipping the tape again on a forehand at 15-40, giving Rola the break.
Rola was able to serve out the match, hitting an ace to finish it, with the club falling nearly silent except for the exuberant shouts of celebration as the Ohio State team mobbed him smack dab in the middle of the top three courts.
Rola, a sophomore from Slovenia, knew that luck had played a role in his win.
"I got lucky, what can I say?," said Rola. "That's how things go and thank god luck was on our side today. The way they get so many fans out here is unbelievable, and to play in front of such a crowd unbelievable. If it's our crowd, it's so much better, but if it's not, it's still okay. To beat them here, in Virginia, it's just unbelievable."
An obviously happy Tucker, with his usual deadpan humor, attributed his team's first win over the Cavaliers in the Brian Boland era to the laws of probability.
"You play long enough, you beat Virginia," said Tucker, in his 13th year heading the Ohio State program. "If you're in this business long enough you'll beat Virginia every once in a while. To get a chance to beat Virginia on their home court, you have to have a lot of luck, but our guys played well, were able to withstand the crowd, pump each other up and do the things we needed to do."
Although Ohio State has been runner-up twice at the Team Indoor, in 2007 and 2008, and at the NCAAs in 2009, losing to USC, they have yet to take a national title.
"The number one thing we've learned is we know what the second place trophy looks like," said Tucker. "We've lost in the finals outdoors and we've lost in the finals indoors. We don't have anything that says one on it. That's motivation enough."
Virginia's Brian Boland gave credit to Ohio State, and expressed little disappointment over the loss of the home winning streak and the chance for a fifth consecutive Indoor title.
"As competitors, we're disappointed that we lost, but by no means am I disappointed in the team's effort or how they prepared. All credit goes to Ohio State for playing a great match, they certainly came ready to play and did a great job today, beating us in a tough situation. The environment's amazing, and we'd won like 93 straight at home, and there it goes. But congratulations to Ohio State, they beat a very good team and will give Southern Cal a good match."
For complete results of both semifinal matches, as well as the consolation matches played today, see the ITA tournament website.