Last year’s Virginia men’s tennis team put together a dream season. The Cavaliers went undefeated and finally walked away with the program’s first NCAA championship.
How could it get any better?
Maybe by doing it again?
Coach Brian Boland’s team successfully began its quest for a repeat last weekend by polishing off Army and Penn State to reach this weekend’s Sweet 16 at their familiar stomping grounds of Athens, Ga. No. 13 seeded Notre Dame awaits as the first obstacle, but fourth-seeded UVa has already conquered the Irish once this season with a 6-1 triumph in March.
After beating Penn State last Sunday, this columnist was taken back a bit by one of Boland’s statements.
The veteran Wahoo coach said that in his 18 years as a head coach, having directed teams that could play at a high level and good enough to win a national championship, that his present UVa squad was as good as any he had been associated with.
“There are some teams that could be as good, but I’ve never had a team that was better,” Boland said.
That’s a huge statement coming from a guy that when asked the same question in years past, would always hedge. Boland would always reserve judgment until after the NCAA Tournament. Not this time.
That must mean these guys are pretty good. They should feel pretty honored to be placed on that type of pedestal.
If you’re an athlete, there’s nothing better than for your coach to look you square in the eye and say, “I believe in you.”
Essentially, that’s just what Boland did heading to Athens.
“This team is a little bit better in terms of the depth and the way that they’re playing, and the top half of the lineup,” Boland said. “Ryan Shane has become an incredible force at three. He has so much firepower. Mitchell Frank at two, well, he’s relentless.”
Then there’s Alex Domijan at No. 1, and if you’ve been keeping up, then you know exactly what Domijan thinks of his senior star. Domijan is THE MAN.
“Virginia’s got a great 1-2 punch in Domijan and Frank,” said Penn State coach Jeff Zinn. “Brian has reloaded. This team has depth and they know how to win. If they shore up their doubles a little bit before they get to Athens, I think they’ll be right in there again.”
One of the things Boland likes best about this year’s bunch is its depth. Not only is there the top three, but as the coach pointed out, he has a lot of options at positions, four through six.
“When coaches look at their teams they say, ‘geez, is there a hole here or there? Where are we strong?,’” Boland said. “I look up and down the lineup and I think every spot is strong. We just don’t have a hole in the lineup.”
For example, freshman J.C. Aragone (at six) hasn’t lost a match all year. Another freshman, Thai-Son Kwiatkowski, has lost only once all year. Senior Justin Shane is solid as well as Harrison Richmond and Mac Styslinger.
This Virginia team has chemistry, works as hard as any team Boland has coached and pushes one another on and off the court. He said this is the most depth he’s ever had.
So, considering that the Cavaliers have played for the national championship the last three years running, there’s a strong chance they could be back in the title picture again.
“We’re really looking forward to Athens,” said Domijan, a four-time All-American. “It will be a good test for us. I think we’re physically ready.”
Domijan was proud that he and his teammates overcame some adversity against Penn State, losing the doubles point, which meant they had to rebound strongly in the singles. UVa swept through the singles competition for a 4-1 win.
“We’ll have to be more ready on Friday,” Domijan said. “The pressure, the enthusiasm from the other team increases so much for these [NCAA] matches, especially in doubles points.”
Domijan believes that the Dan Magill Tennis Center at the University of Georgia is the best venue for the NCAA Tournament and that’s hard to argue. That is, unless the event is plagued by rain, which it was two years ago.
Athens is one Boland’s favorite places, supplanted only by Champaign, Ill., where the Cavaliers finally broke through and won the national championship last May.
“Although, before I went to Champaign, I wouldn’t have told you that,” Boland chuckled.
“Athens is special, unless it rains and that’s the concern,” Boland said. “I think it should be a concern. The NCAA had a terrible time down there last time and they decided to go back. We’ll hope for the best this time and hope it doesn’t rain. But if it rains, it will be tough.”
The torrential downpours of two years ago turned the facility into a circus-like atmosphere. Georgia’s outdoor facility is great, but there’s only four indoor courts for 32 teams if the weather turns bad. The lighting for those indoor courts is poor as well and there’s not a lot of room for fans.
“It was unfortunate [two years ago] because these kids work all year for the NCAA championships and we’re down there and it’s not the kind of experience they should have,” Boland said. “We still should have won that championship under those circumstances. Let’s just hope for no rain.”