Florida Women Claim First ITA National Indoors Title Since 1999
by Joey Dillon, 15 February 2017
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For sixteen of the best women's college tennis teams in the country, the ITA National Team Indoor Championship was more than just a trophy - it was a chance to make a statement for the rest of the season - or possibly a way to announce a rise to elite status. For Roland Thornqvist and his No. 1 Florida Gators, a win in New Haven, Connecticut, achieved a new first. Owning an incredible 447-97 head coaching record into the 2017 dual season and armed with countless national, conference and coaching accolades, Thornqvist has never won an NTI championship, and UF was seeking its first title since 1999.
Fifteen teams earned their entry to join host Yale
to battle it out for their national glory - including defending champions California
and North Carolina
, who had reached the championship match three of the last four years. During the ITA Kick Off Weekend
, thirteen of the fifteen hosts advanced through, with Texas A&M
and Ole Miss
becoming the first No. 4 seed to advance to the national championship with their upsets over host Virginia
followed by LSU
Florida faced an indoor-ready Michigan squad and dropped the doubles point before taking straight set wins in singles at Nos..3-6 to take a 4-1 win. Texas Tech stunned 2015 NCAA champions Vanderbilt 4-2, led by No. 116 Felicity Maltby's three-set win over No. 8 Sydney Campbell. Without their No. 1 Luisa Stefani in the lineup, Pepperdine withstood a tight challenge from Texas A&M before pushing through to the quarterfinals, 4-2. 2014 NTI champions Duke took out Georgia in the doubles point, but the Bulldogs were too tough in singles and scraped out the first four singles wins.
Ohio State, in only their second NTI appearance after their Cinderella run to the semifinals last year - took out Auburn 4-1, dropping only one set. Though their 4-0 win over Ole Miss looked easy on paper, Oklahoma State out-battled the Rebels in a match that had four third sets. Cal outclassed 2007-08 champions Georgia Tech 4-0 and dropped only six games in their three completed singles matches. North Carolina had the dream start to their NTI campaign, dropping two 6-0 sets in doubles, with their No. 1 team up 5-0 when play was called. They continued momentum into singles, winning at Nos. 1-3, losing 10 games collectively.
The quarterfinals saw the top seven seeds in action, and nothing but high-quality tennis was seen in all four encounters. Florida had another tough doubles point - this time against Texas Tech - before emerging victorious 7-5 on court No. 1. Maltby again took the reins for the Red Raiders, upsetting No. 23 Anna Danilina, but there was no more magic, with the Gators taking singles wins at Nos. 1, 3 and 4 in straight sets. Georgia grabbed the first major upset of the championship, knocking out Pepperdine 4-1. The Waves took the doubles point before Georgia would storm back in singles. Three straight-set wins and a three-set finish from freshman Marta Gonzalez would put the Bulldogs into the semifinals with another chance to take out rival Florida.
The last time Ohio State faced Oklahoma State was in the NCAA quarterfinals, where the Cowgirls prevailed 4-3. Oklahoma State would take the doubles point convincingly and begin the see-saw affair. The Buckeyes would take their first point at No. 1 with top-ranked Francesca DiLorenzo knocking off No. 10 Viktoriya Lushkova. The match would eventually go down to No. 84 Miho Kowase, who clinched Ohio State's upset in the same round the previous year against Vanderbilt. Kowase would send the Buckeyes through again with a come-from-behind upset over No. 42 Carla Tur Mari. North Carolina would have their own battle against Cal, with the Tar Heels taking out the doubles point and splitting the first four singles matches with the Bears. Nos. 2 and 3 singles would go to third sets, but No. 17 Jessie Aney would beat teammate No. 2 Sara Daavettila to the punch and clinch another NTI semifinal berth for North Carolina.
Florida and Georgia are no strangers to one another, constantly contesting against each other in the SEC Championship as well as deep in the NCAA tournament. The Gators would take the doubles point and four first sets in singles. Wins by No. 30 Kourtney Keegan at No. 6 and Brooke Austin at No. 5 all but assured the Gators a sweep. At No. 1, No. 40 Belinda Woolcock took down fellow Aussie Ellen Perez in a tight second-set tiebreak to seal a 4-0 win for Florida. The win put the Gators into their twelfth NTI championship and first since 2011.
The bottom half's semifinal saw an epic battle between North Carolina and Ohio State. The Buckeyes served for the doubles point, but the Tar Heels would clinch in a tiebreak at No. 3 to secure a 1-0 lead. Aney would give North Carolina a 2-0 lead before Kowase upset No. 60 Makenna Jones at No. 5. Sandy Niehaus brought another Ohio State upset over No. 48 Alexa Graham at No. 4 before Daavettila downed No. 55 Anna Sanford in three sets at No. 2 to give North Carolina their lead back. At No. 6, Ferny Angeles Paz took a three-set win at No. 6 to put all eyes on court No. 1. No. 5 Hayley Carter would earn her first win over a No. 1 player and her first win over Di Lorenzo to send the Tar Heels to their fifth NTI final in six years.
Championship: No. 1 Florida vs. No. 2 North Carolina
Florida, who won their last NTI championship before Thornqvist joined the UF coaching staff, came out firing in doubles. No. 17 Woolcock and Josie Kuhlman routed Rachael James-Baker and Chloe Ouellet-Pizer 6-0 at No. 3. No. 22 Danilina and Ingrid Neel would take court No. 2 6-2 with a win over No. 42 Aney and Cassandra Vasquez. No. 18 Austin and Keegan, the reigning NCAA doubles champions, were tied with Carter and Daavettila 4-4 when play was called.
Momentum completely flipped in singles with UNC taking four first sets, but Austin struck first, routing Ouellet-Pizer at No. 5, 6-1, 6-1. Daavettila would take out Danilina 6-1, 6-2 at No. 2 to cut the Gator lead to 2-1. Keegan began the Florida comeback with a 4-6, 6-0, 6-1 victory on court No. 6 over Vasquez to put the Gators within one point from the win. Graham would stun No. 19 Kuhlman 6-3, 7-6(1) to cut it down to 3-2 Florida. Carter was cruising in the third set against Woolcock on court No. 1, which pushed all of the focus on court No. 4.
No. 45 Neel was no stranger to her opponent Aney, as the two best friends grew up training together in Minnesota. However, Neel was new to the pressure-filled situation as she just enrolled in school this past January. Neel would take the first set 6-4, but Aney stormed back to take the second 6-1. Both players would stay on serve until 4-3, when Neel broke Aney's serve. A tight game gave Aney a slight opening, but clutch serving and net play from Neel would be too much, bringing Thronqvist his first NTI championship with an overhead winner.
Talking to FloTennis.com, Thornqvist soaked in his first NTI championship, "This means a lot. It means a lot to our players, you can tell that. Any time you can bring home a trophy of this kind it means a lot." Thornqvist had a feeling his team would come home with the hardware after seeing his team get better with each round. "This has been a long-time coming. We've played well at the Indoors before, but this is a special group. I had a feeling that we had a chance just by the way we hit the ball. You never know until the very, very end." While the Gators will have a moment to bask in their glory, Thornqvist has his eyes set down the road, which includes matches against NCAA champions Stanford and runner-up Oklahoma State this weekend. "We'll take a couple days off but we have to get right back on the drawing board."
ITA Division I National Women's Team Indoor Championship Match
No. 1 Florida 4, No. 2 North Carolina 2
1. Austin/Keegan (UF) vs. Carter/Daavettila (UNC) 4-4, DNF
2. Danilina/Neel (UF) def. Aney/Vazquez (UNC) 6-2
3. Woolcock/Kuhlman (UF) def Baker/Ouellet-Pizer (UNC) 6-0
Order of finish: 3, 2
1. Hayley Carter (UNC) vs. Belinda Woolcock (UF) 7-6 (1), 1-6, 4-0 DNF
2. Sara Daavettila (UNC) def. Anna Danilina (UF) 6-1, 6-2
3. Ingrid Neel (UF) def. Jessie Aney (UNC) 6-4, 1-6, 6-3
4. Alexa Graham (UNC) def. Josie Kuhlman (UF) 6-3, 7-6 (1)
5. Brooke Austin (UF) def. Chloe Ouellet-Pizer (UNC) 6-1, 6-1
6. Kourtney Keegan (UF) def. Cassandra Vazquez (UNC) 4-6, 6-1, 6-1
Order of finish: 5, 2, 6, 4, 3
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Joey Dillon fell in love with collegiate tennis as a junior, attending
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