©Colette Lewis 2012--
The last time the University of Southern California played for a national team title, at last year's NCAA Championships, it was junior Daniel Nguyen who clinched a 4-3 victory for the Trojans, their third straight.
In Monday's final of the ITA Men's National Team Indoor against No. 3 seed Ohio State, it wasn't the experienced Nguyen charged with supplying the final point with the match deadlocked at 3, but rather freshman Yannick Hanfmann.
Having lost the first set to Devin McCarthy on court 5, Hanfmann displayed few nerves as he fought back to post a 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory, giving his team its first Team Indoor title since 1988--three years before he was born.
The top-seeded Trojans had a tough battle with No. 4 Georgia in Sunday's semifinal before emerging with a 4-1 decision, but on Monday they were actually behind for the first time after dropping the doubles point.
Ohio State got an 8-5 win at No. 1 from the nation's top-ranked team of Chase Buchanan and Blaz Rola, dealing Steve Johnson and Hanfmann their first lost of the season. USC's cousin tandem of Emilio Gomez and Roberto Quiroz were leading Peter Kobelt and Connor Smith 6-4 on Court 3, but lost three straight games, and that match went into a tiebreaker. Ohio State took a 5-1 and 6-3 lead in the extra game, and after Kobelt let one match point slip away, Smith blasted a return winner to secure the doubles point with a 9-8(4) win. Had Ohio State lost that tiebreaker, they were still in the driver's seat, with McCarthy poised to finish it for the Buckeyes on Court 2 against Nguyen and Raymond Sarmiento. McCarthy and partner Ille Van Engelen led 7-6 with McCarthy serving when the match was abandoned.
"They just punched us in the face in doubles," said USC head coach Peter Smith. "I just walked in [the locker room] and said, this is what we did wrong, and if you get punched in the face, you better get up and punch back."
"Fortunately, we've got a couple of veterans that we knew we could count on."
Smith was speaking of course of seniors Steve Johnson and Nguyen, who have won three consecutive NCAA team championships. Nguyen, playing on Court 3, raced out to post a 6-1 first set over Ohio State's Peter Kobelt, who was one of the heroes of the Buckeyes' upset of host Virginia, the four-time defending champions.
"We felt good about that match," said Smith. "We felt like we had a good game plan and that Daniel was the right guy for it."
But despite two other first sets--at No. 1, with Johnson over Buchanan, and No. 4, with Gomez over Van Engelen--a fourth point for the Trojans wasn't apparent. Ohio State's Smith had taken the first set from Eric Johnson, who was making his tournament debut at No. 6 singles, and McCarthy had posted his first set against Hanfmann. The momentum seemed to turn in the Buckeyes favor at No. 2, when Rola broke Sarmiento serving for the first set at 5-4, then broke him again to steal the set 7-5.
That was three first sets for Ohio State, who only needed to maintain those leads to hoist the winner's trophy for the first time. But Hanfmann was already up a break in the second set against McCarthy, so any projections at that stage were premature. After Nguyen finished off Kobelt 6-1, 6-2 to make it 1-1, Gomez followed with a 6-3, 6-4 win over Van Engelen at 4 to put USC in the lead 2-1.
By this time, Hanfmann had taken the second set from McCarthy, while teammate Eric Johnson had broken Smith at 5-5 and was serving for the second set. He couldn't hold however, and Smith took the tiebreaker, needing four match points before finally recording a 6-3, 7-6(6) victory to tie the match at 2.
On Court 1, Buchanan and Johnson were in an extremely tight second set, with many multiple deuce games, until Johnson finally broke at 4-4 and served it out for a 6-3, 6-4 decision and a 3-2 lead for USC.
Just moments later, Rola broke Sarmiento at 3-4, after another long and tight second set, and he too served it out, taking the match 7-5, 6-3 to make it 3-3. The several hundred fans in attendance at the Boar's Head Sports Club then turned their undivided attention to Court 5, where, just as Rola finished, Hanfmann broke McCarthy, taking a 3-2 third-set lead, which proved to be enough.
"We couldn't buy a first serve when it was 2-2, 30-0 on Devin McCarthy's court," said Ohio State head coach Ty Tucker. "Somehow he felt a little of the pressure right away and gave up that break right there and struggled a little there at the end of the match to keep the ball in the court. We ride Devin hard and he's a big-time horse for us. We played well, but USC got us."
Knowing the match was on the line didn't seem to faze Hanfmann, who played both relaxed and aggressively in his subsequent service games. McCarthy held for 4-3 and 5-4, and Hanfmann had a changeover to consider his situation.
"The pressure at the end, when everybody is coming down to court 5, it was huge," said the 20-year-old German, who also took a recruiting visit to Ohio State before deciding to attend USC. "I was relieved that I got the break, because I just had to serve it out. It's easier said than done, but you've just got to calm down, talk to yourself, focus on your own match."
In serving for the second set, Hanfmann had double faulted twice, but there was no sign of that problem with the match on the line. McCarthy erred on three forehands, one of which was forced by Hanfmann's great get on a volley, giving Hanfmann three championship points. He only needed the first, hitting a big first serve that McCarthy couldn't handle, and the Trojan title celebration, last seen in Palo Alto in May of 2011, was underway again.
"I was thinking win or lose with Yannick out there, it's great he's in that situation," said Smith. "He's a freshman, he needs to get used to that kind of pressure. He handled it really well, and fortunately he's got that serve. He did great."
For Tucker, his fourth visit to the final of a national team championship ended as the two previous indoor finals and the 2009 NCAA championship did, with the runner-up trophy.
"We've got to go and get better, work on some of the things that let us down, some first serve percentage, some early points in games," said Tucker. "We've got to get back to the drawing board...Hat's off to USC. They're the best team in the country for a reason and we hope to get better, so come May, we'll stand up and fight some more."
Smith, whose teams have won three consecutive NCAA titles without reaching the semifinals of the National Indoors, believes the Buckeyes will break through.
"People have to understand that I did this (college coaching) for 22 years before I won anything. You just keep knocking at the door, and sooner or later the door gets answered."
Now there are four national team titles that have entered through USC's doors in the past four years.
#1 USC vs. #3 Ohio State
(1) #1 Buchanan/Rola (OSU) def. #28 Hanfmann/S. Johnson (USC) – 8-5
(2) Nguyen/Sarmiento (USC) vs. #27 McCarthy/Van Engelen (OSU) – 6-7 susp.
(3) Kobelt/Smith (OSU) def. Gomez/Quiroz (USC) – 9-8(4)
OSU wins doubles point.
Order of finish: 1, 3
(1) #11 Steve Johnson (USC) vs. #16 Chase Buchanan (OSU) – 6-3, 6-4
(2) #12 Blaz Rola (OSU) def. #18 Ray Sarmiento (USC) – 7-5, 6-3
(3) #14 Daniel Nguyen (USC) def. Peter Kobelt (OSU) – 6-1, 6-2
(4) #47 Emiilo Gomez (USC) def. #99 Ille Van Engelen (OSU) – 6-3, 6-4
(5) #36 Yannick Hanfmann (USC) def. #65 Devin McCarthy (OSU) – 3-6, 6-3, 6-4
(6) #107 Connor Smith (OSU) def. Eric Johnson (USC) – 6-3, 7-6(6)
Order of finish: 3, 4, 6, 1, 2, 5