USC Men Claim Fourth Straight NCAA Team Title, while Florida Women Go Back-to-Back
by Colette Lewis
, 25 May 2012
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Winning one NCAA team title is difficult. Only 21 programs have managed to do it in over six decades of competition in Division I collegiate tennis. But the USC men and Florida women are making a habit of it, with Trojans collecting their fourth in row with a 4-2 win over Virginia and the Gators going back-to-back with a 4-0 victory over UCLA Tuesday in Athens, Ga.
Even the most dedicated of the two programs' fans wouldn't describe this year's titles as routine however.
Second seed Florida, which was appearing in the finals for the third straight year, barely survived its semifinal encounter with No. 3 seed Duke, with sophomore Alex Cercone coming from behind to defeat Mary Clayton in a three-hour marathon at line 5 to clinch a 4-3 win.
Awaiting the Gators in the final was top seed UCLA, which had had its own grueling semifinal with crosstown rival USC. McCall Jones outlasted Danielle Lao at line 2 to give the Bruins their 4-3 victory and first finals berth since they won the title in 2008.
With the length of the two semifinals matches, played midday in the heat and humidity, recovery time was a major concern for both coaches, particularly UCLA's Stella Sampras Webster.
"They're a great team and they're used to this kind of weather, and we're going to have to fight that much more and prepare that much more," Sampras Webster said of the Gators, who had the same six starters as in 2011, while her team featured three freshmen.
In the Tuesday afternoon final, Florida came out strong in the doubles, with Allie Will and Sofie Oyen taking a big lead over UCLA freshmen Robin Anderson and Skylar Morton, then closing out an 8-4 victory at line 1. Cercone and Caroline Hitimana's win at line 3 put Florida up 1-0, with the Gator pair coming back from 3-1 down to post an 8-5 win over Jones and Carling Seguso at line 3. Court two doubles did not finish.
Florida didn't take that lead for granted, especially after its experience against Duke in Monday's semifinal. After losing the doubles point to Florida, the Blue Devils got off to a blazing start in singles and it was nearly five hours before the Gators would claim that 4-3 win.
In singles, UCLA's Morton took an early 3-0 lead on Oyen at line 4, but Oyen took the next six games, one of three first sets the Gators would win. Cercone, whose win over Duke's Clayton took three hours and 14 minutes Monday, was first off in Tuesday's final, defeating Chanelle Van Nguyen 6-2, 6-0 at line 5 to make it 2-0 Florida.
"I was a little bit concerned how I would hold up today, after my match yesterday," said Cercone, a sophomore. "So I'm really happy that I played efficient tennis today. For me physically that was good, and obviously that helped out the rest of the girls."
Oyen made it 3-0 with a 6-3, 6-2 win over Morton, and by then Embree had taken a 2-0 second set lead over Jones at line 2. Anderson was close to closing out Will at line 1 to get UCLA on the board, while at 3, Florida's Joanna Mather had forced a third set with Pam Montez. UCLA's Carling Seguso had taken the first set from Olivia Janowicz in a tiebreaker at line 6, and they were midway through the second set as Embree kept rolling.
Embree made it 4-0, then 5-0 and 40-0. The junior from Marco Island, Florida needed only one championship point, and when she maneuvered closer to the net to pound a backhand winner, she set off two celebrations: one by the team on the court and the other by the hundreds of Florida fans in the stands.
"I thought we were absolutely fantastic and outstanding from start to finish," said Florida coach Roland Thornqvist. "All through doubles on all three courts, I thought we were much better. Singles, what can you say? I thought we executed great on every court. At 4, 5 and 6 that was as good as I've seen us play in a long time frankly."
Sampras Webster was also impressed by Florida's performance Tuesday.
"They play with a lot of heart and they like to grind," said Sampras Webster, who was named ITA Coach of the Year Tuesday. "We're more shot makers, and we weren't as sharp as we needed to be to beat a team like Florida. You really need to be able to execute and finish points off, and we weren't able to do that as successfully as we needed to. Florida's a tough team and they played well.
"I haven't seen them play all year, so I don't know if that was their best match or that was just how they play, but they definitely outplayed us today."
Thornqvist suggested the Gators' conditioning was a factor in their excellent play in the final.