Vanderbilt Women Claim First NCAA Team Title; Virginia Beats Top Seed Oklahoma for Men's Championship
©Colette Lewis 2015--
The Virginia Cavaliers claimed their second NCAA Division I team title Tuesday afternoon, beating top seed Oklahoma 4-1, while the Vanderbilt women outlasted defending champion UCLA 4-2 in a nearly five-hour marathon to earn the program's first national championship at the Hurd Tennis Center on the campus of Baylor University.
A rain-free but blustery day made for challenging conditions, but cooler temperatures were an improvement over Monday's semifinal steam bath. Third-seeded Virginia captured the doubles point, with Luca Corinteli and Ryan Shane beating Andrew Harris and Alex Ghilea 8-4 at line 1, and looking sharp in the process to set the tone, with Virginia also getting wins at 2 and 3. Cavaliers Thai Kwiatkowski and Mac Styslinger held on to their early break against Dane Webb and Spencer Papa for an 8-5 victory at line 2, but while their match point was in progress, Collin Altamirano and JC Aragone broke Axel Alvarez and Jose Salazar to win at line 3 by the same score.
Virginia coach Brian Boland knew better than to take any confidence from that early lead, as the Cavaliers had taken the doubles point in their meeting with Oklahoma back in March, but lost the match 4-3.
"I think 11 times they've lost the doubles point," said Boland, although Oklahoma had actually lost it 14 times, but dropping only three of those matches, including this one. "They've learned to deal with it when they go down the doubles point, so we were certainly focused on getting off to a great start."
Knowing Oklahoma's knack for winning close matches, Virginia was on its guard, although was able to breathe a bit easier when Mitchell Frank at line 2, Collin Altamirano at line 3 and Thai Kwiatkowski at line 4 all captured first sets. That meant Oklahoma would need to win a three setter to take the title that eluded it last year in Athens, when the Sooners lost in the final to Southern California 4-2.
Oklahoma fans, who included coach John Roddick's younger brother Andy, were heartened by the quick 6-3, 6-2 win by Spencer Papa over Alexander Ritschard at line 5, making the score 1-1. Sooner Axel Alvarez led Shane 6-4, 1-2 at line 1 and Florin Bragusi came from 5-3 down in his first set tiebreaker with Virginia's Aragone at line 6 to capture a set they desperately needed, but getting a match to a third set proved difficult for Oklahoma.
Freshman Collin Altamirano gave the Cavaliers a 2-1 lead with a 6-3, 6-3 win over Dane Webb at line 3, and Kwiatkowski pulled away from Alex Ghilea at line 4, claiming a 6-3, 6-4 win to make it 3-1. Alvarez served for Oklahoma's second point at 5-4 in the second set, but Shane broke back. Meanwhile, Frank was up 7-5, 4-1 against Harris at line 2, only to lose the break with Harris tying it up at 4-4, while Aragone was earning a split with Bragusi.
Serving from behind, Harris managed to hold at 4-5, but after Frank held for 6-5, the pressure began to tell. Harris, who lost the deciding match in the final last year to USC's Max de Vroome, missed a backhand, double faulted, then missed a forehand, giving Frank three championship points. Harris saved the first with an overhead, the second when Frank missed a return and the third when Frank's forehand went wide. Another forehand miss and Frank had a fourth match point, which he cashed in when Harris netted a third-shot forehand.
After clinching Virginia's first national title two years ago under memorable circumstances, Frank admitted his mindset was different in the quest for a second national title.
"The first one is maybe a little bit more stressful," said Frank, who was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player. "You're in a situation where you come into the Virginia program and everyone always talked, like they're so close, but they find a way to lose. You hear it all the time, honestly, that's what people were saying. They just can't get it done, something like that. The first one was like getting over that hump, a curse somebody had put on us or something, so I think coming into this one this year, I felt more relaxed maybe. Obviously everyone wants it really bad, but it's all about managing that."
Boland, who is in his 14th season as head coach of the Cavaliers, agreed.
"The first one is always the toughest," said Boland, who has led the team to the semifinals or beyond for six straight years. "It's true in tournaments and everything else. We were relieved in terms of getting past the first one, and we were a little more free this time."
Roddick, who has now led Oklahoma to the finals twice in just six years as coach of the Sooners, believes the expectation bar has been raised after last year.
"From an NCAA standpoint, anything except a national championship, that was what we wanted," Roddick said. "And I don't think any one of our guys will shy away from that goal. We know we're a capable team and we have the ability to do that. It's a huge disappointment, probably more disappointing this year than maybe last year. Last year we were still trying to figure out if we were a team capable of doing this, and I think it hurts more because we know we are."
Roddick conceded that on Tuesday, Virginia was the better team.
"We knew if we played our best tennis, we'd have a chance to win, and we knew if Virginia played their best tennis, they'd have a chance to win. I think both teams proved that back in March. That match could have gone either way and this one was close. We had our opportunities to at least put it in position to go either way. I don't think it was that close, but we were right on the cusp of making it--there was a 30- minute stretch where it really started to get interesting. Our guys kept competing, no one gave up."
With Webb the only senior in the Oklahoma lineup and Frank the lone senior in the Virginia lineup, both teams should again be contenders for the national title in 2016.
Few observers would have expected the Vanderbilt women to be a national title contender prior to the start of the season, or even three months ago, when the team was 4-4, but the No. 4 seeds earned the program's first team title with a 4-2 win over defending champion UCLA.
One of the key ingredients of the Commodores run, which included a come-from-behind win over No. 5 seed Florida in the quarterfinals and a 4-0 blanking of No. 1 seed USC in the semifinals, was redshirt freshman Astra Sharma. The 19-year-old from Australia clinched those two matches and also got the final point Tuesday night, defeating Chanelle Van Nugyen 3-6, 6-2, 6-4 at line 2 after nearly five hours of intense competition between the two teams.
Vanderbilt took the doubles point, as the evening's gusty winds peaked as the sun began setting, making ball tosses an adventure and lobs difficult to execute.
Courtney Colton and Sydney Campbell defeated Bruins Robin Anderson and Jennifer Brady 8-3 at No. 1 doubles, and although UCLA's Catherine Harrison and Kyle McPhillips closed their 8-5 win at No. 2 doubles against Ashleigh Antal and Sharma, the point looked assured for Vanderbilt, with Maria Casares and Frances Altick up 5-0 on Van Nguyen and Maia Magill, making her first appearance in competition at the final site.
Van Nguyen and Magill fought back to make it 7-5, but Magill was broken in the final game to give Vandy the lead.
When singles began, Sharma immediately went down 5-1 in the first set, but found her form late in the first set and took the second set 6-2.
Each team took three first sets, meaning the defending champions, seeded seventh, would need to win a three-setter, while keeping Vanderbilt at bay in the three matches. UCLA's Anderson and Brady won first sets over Campbell and Altick at 1 and 3 respectively, but the bottom half of Vanderbilt's lineup was keeping them alive. Colton, down 4-1 to UCLA's Harrison at line 4, came back to win the first set in a tiebreaker, while Antal was up 6-1, 3-0 over UCLA's Kaitlin Ray at line 6, and Casares had taken the first set from McPhillips at line 5.
Anderson completed her match, defeating Campbell 6-4, 6-1 to give UCLA its first, and as it turned out, last point they would earn in the next hour of play.
Brady could not serve out her match leading Altick 6-4, 5-4, with Altick taking four straight game before Brady broke Altick to force a tiebreaker.
Colton had made it 3-1 Vanderbilt by again coming from behind, this time after trailing 3-0 in the second set, taking a 7-6(5), 6-4 win.
Shortly after Colton wrapped up her match, Casares broke McPhillips at 5-all and stepped to the line to serve out her match and the championship. At 15-all, McPhillips netted a forehand volley, but Casares made a rare error to make it 30-all. McPhillips cracked a forehand winner to get a break point, and at 30-40, Casares double faulted, with her second serve bouncing before it got to the net.
Sharma had earned a split with Van Nguyen to send that match to a third, and McPhillips won the tiebreaker 7-5 to earn a third set.
"I don't think McPhillips missed a ball for several minutes," said Geoff Macdonald, in his 21st year as Vanderbilt's coach. "She made no unforced errors, was flawless. I give her a ton of credit. I thought it was a really high level match between Maria and Kyle McPhillips."
Brady and Altick were just entering a second set tiebreaker when McPhillips earned the split, with UCLA now needing all three matches remaining on the court. Up 5-3 in the tiebreaker, Brady made two errors for 5-5. After a brief but tense rally, Altick called a Brady forehand wide on the near sideline, but the chair umpire overruled her. Because it was Altick's third overrule, a point penalty was assessed, and after moment's confusion, Brady was declared the winner of the match.
The Vanderbilt fans in the stands were convinced the overrule was not warranted, and a few made loud derogatory remarks about the chair umpire's competence, resulting a warning from the tournament referee, with a point penalty against the Vanderbilt team if it continued. The situation did not escalate, and Macdonald gave Altick credit for keeping her composure in its wake.
"I felt so badly for Frances," said Macdonald. "We joke that she plays out balls all the time. It was a close call, I'm not going to talk about what the official did. She(Frances) did a really good job of not making a huge scene on the court even though I think she was pretty emotional. She got out of view and went inside and dealt with it. Marie, these young people are so tough, they know how to regroup really well. They've done it all year."
Both Sharma and Casares were briefly down a break early in the third set, but recovered.
At 4-all in the third, Sharma saved a break point at 30-40, with a good serve and a forehand winner, taking a 5-4 lead.
Van Nguyen, who alternating between moon balls and aggressive flat hitting had two game points, but Sharma was simply not missing balls, no matter how long the rallies were.
Van Nguyen hit a backhand wide to give Vanderbilt its first championship point, but saved it with a forcing forehand into the corner. After a fine forehand volley putaway, Sharma had her second match point, but missed a forehand long. A rare error by Sharma, a netted forehand, gave Van Nguyen her third game point, but a courageous forehand swing volley by Sharma negated it. Another forehand long, and Sharma wasn't missing by much, gave Van Nguyen her fourth game point, but a return winner on a soft second serve brought it back to deuce. A big Sharma forehand forced an error and on match point number three, Van Nguyen sent a forehand wide to set off a celebration befitting a first national championship.
Sharma felt the tension in the final minutes of the match.
"There was a lot of noise from the crowd and it was predominately UCLA people," said Sharma, the tournament's Most Outstanding Player. "It was nerve-racking to have that feeling of the entire championship on my shoulders, but I just really had to regroup, and reframe the pressure, like, she's as nervous as I am and it's no big deal. I've played so many points in my life, this is just another one. The worst that could happen is that we go back to deuce. So I just had to be disciplined with my thought."
UCLA coach Stella Sampras Webster admitted to being a little surprised by the poise Vanderbilt showed in their first appearance in a team championship since 2001.
"I'm just really impressed, to tell you the truth," Sampras Webster said. "The way their players played and handled the situation. I just don't get to see that team very much, but they've beaten Georgia, Florida, beaten all these great teams--SC yesterday--so we knew it was going to be a tough match and they're playing extremely well, they really showed it today."
Macdonald knew his team had earned the title the hard way by defeating UCLA.
"When you think about it, the seniors on that team have been to four straight Final Fours," Macdonald said. "We were in new water for us and there was no panic or nerves. Well, there were nerves, of course there are in a tennis match, but I just have to say hats off to my team for handling an incredibly large moment with class, guts and great spirit. It's beautiful to be a part of."
For more from the men's final, see College Tennis Today.
The individual tournament begins Wednesday at 9 a.m. with singles.
Draws are available at the Baylor tournament website.