The UC Irvine Club Tennis team is one of the section’s longest standing Tennis On Campus programs. The Anteaters have proven to be a force to be reckoned with in competition, but what they are really known for is their excellent sportsmanship on and off the court.
They’ve amassed numerous sportsmanship awards at the Section Championship, more at the Spring Invitational, and even more at the National Championship through the years. In 2017, their story certainly shows a team with the same sincerity we are all used to, but it also takes them to the finals of the Tennis On Campus National Championship.
“I did not know what to expect heading into Nationals. I knew that any of these 64 teams had a chance to win,” UCI Team Captain, Tommy Luu, said of the experience. It was a common theme among team members. Many knew they had a strong team, but had no expectation to be in the final battle for the title.
The top teams from all over the U.S. made their way to the USTA’s new National Campus in Orlando this April– all fighting to be in this very position.
“We didn’t expect to go so far,” senior Melissa Huang said. “We didn’t realize our potential. I think it really hit us when we got into the top four that we had a chance at winning the tournament.”
And how would they have ever known? The team was young and inexperienced at this level. They finished third at the 2017 Southern California Section Championship, and even missed out on Nationals in 2016 after a disappointing run at Sectionals last year.
“I was the only one on UCI’s 2015 Nationals team that returned for 2017, so it was pretty difficult to gauge how we would perform against the other schools,” Co-Captain Gabe Cupino said.
Apparently, it was only the coach who knew what to expect from this group.
“I was confident we had a team that could win at Nationals,” long-time coach, Iris Fonseca, said after their stellar run. “My goal coming into the tournament was winning the title. At minimum, I wanted to finish as one of the top four schools.”
The road to the finals was not easy. Seeded second in their pool, the Anteaters had to play University of Virginia, University of Tennessee, and Rice University. UVA was the team to beat, seeded at number one in Pool I. First up for the Anteaters was University of Tennessee. The team looked shaky, dropping a couple sets, but finishing strong with a 23-15 win. Next, an easy-breezy match versus Rice University, ending 30-9. Last up, was UVA. The Cavaliers are known for their deep runs into the Gold Bracket at Nationals, but UCI was able to push the team into the Silver Bracket with a 30-15 win in the final round of pool play.
“My mentality getting into the Gold Draw was there’s no such thing as an easy match,” Luu said. “Everyone in Gold Draw had the capability to win at Nationals and I knew we just had to believe in each other and keep fighting for every set, every point, every shot.”
In the first round of the Gold Bracket, UCI beat UPenn handedly. In the quarters, they faced Georgia and looked strong out of the gates. The Anteaters were up big heading into mixed and looked to have everything under control at 4-0, but dropped six quick games and lost the mixed doubles set. The match then went into Overtime, but the Eaters were able to stop the bleeding and won the first game of OT, ending the match after a minor hiccup.
Into the semifinals they went with bellies full of Korean barbeque from the night previous and a tough match ahead of them. Minnesota was primed and ready for the 9 a.m. match on Saturday. The Gophers’ men’s doubles team laid out a 6-1 win over the Anteaters and it didn’t look like the girls weren’t fairing much better. UCI was down 1-4 in women’s doubles when the team subbed in exchange student Yoshi Takashimizu, which put the brakes on Minnesota’s momentum and turned the set around completely. UCI won women’s doubles 6-4.
Heading into mixed doubles, Minnesota had a one-game lead. It was up to the mixed doubles team of Cupino and Huang to come up with the upset.
“During the mixed set, I played with a lot of energy because we needed to win at least 6-4 to win the match without playing a supertiebreak,” Cupino recalled of the match. “I was trying to keep us pumped up because I knew the moment the other team gained momentum, we could lose the set and ultimately lose the match.”
Cupino and Huang focused on their consistency through their entire set and were able to pull through with a 6-3 win, beating Minnesota 23-21 and securing their spot in the finals.
They waited for the winner of the other semifinal match, either UCLA or Michigan. The Bruins were desperately trying to claw their way back into the match with a 6-1 win in men’s singles. Ultimately though, the Bruins fell and the final match was decided. The Anteaters would face a feisty team from University of Michigan in the finals.
The teams had a few hours to kill before the big show. UCI went through pre-match interviews with the USTA’s video crew and got a briefing on the night’s run of show. The team refueled at Olive Garden and went back to the hotel to decompress with a rousing game of “Exploding Kittens,” a card game that helped keep the anxiety at bay while they waited for the evening’s match.
Before they knew it, they were back at the National Campus, hearing their names announced to a buzzing crowd of students, friends and family, and USTA staff. The Anteaters were a clear fan favorite. Once again, the team’s unparalleled sportsmanship paid off. It was clear UC Irvine had garnered the support of teams throughout the tournament – even the teams they had beaten.
“There are no words to describe the feeling from the energy and support the fans gave us,” Luu said. “I knew we had made some friends from the other schools but I did not expect almost everyone to be on our side cheering us on.”
It’s not every day that a college student can say they played in an event of this magnitude. Students from the 64 teams gathered around one court to watch these two teams battle. They cheered. They groaned. They rallied behind their friends, teammates, and new TOC comrades. The match was also streamed live online with color commentary from Cici Bellis, so the event reached thousands of people across the country as it happened.
As the match got underway, Michigan took charge immediately, winning women’s doubles 6-2. Up next was Takashimizu for women’s singles and it turned out she had a bit of a cult following herself. The crowd chanted her name as she warmed up.
“YO-SHI, YO-SHI, YO-SHI.”
“It was so much fun and I will never forget that moment,” she said. “I can’t thank the people enough for cheering for me and supporting us in every way.”
Takashimizu found herself up 5-2 in the singles set, but her Wolverine opponent locked into the match and made an incredible comeback, taking the set 6-5.
Next up, men’s doubles: Cupino and Luu. The two team captains got off to a slow start and found themselves in a 0-2 deficit. They fired back, however, and served up six straight games and a 6-2 win, keeping the Anteaters in the match.
“I had never played in that kind of atmosphere, in front of so many people,” Luu said. “At first, I was so nervous. I was shanking every ball and missing volleys in the warm up. But through the course of the set, the crowd’s energy inspired me to keep fighting.”
Freshman Andy Francis stepped onto the court for men’s singles. With the crowd behind him, he pulled out a 6-4 victory. The Anteaters were up one game going into mixed doubles. They just needed to win the set to win the title.
The crowd erupted in excitement to see Takashimizu take the court with Cupino. The “Yo-Shi” chants filled the stadium once again as the duo warmed up. However, the Anteaters needed more than the crowd’s support for this set. Michigan flew into the final set with a vengeance, and stole the win from the Anteaters with a 6-1 victory in mixed doubles.
Even in defeat, UC Irvine was thankful for the experience and proud of what they accomplished.
“It was a surreal experience,” Cupino said. “I felt like I had to give it my all for everyone who was watching. To hear so much clapping and screaming after winning a point was something I have never experienced in my life. It is an experience I will always hold close to my heart.”
“This tournament has truly been the highlight of my coaching career at UCI,” Fonseca admitted. “I could not have asked for a better team to coach and represent UCI and Southern California at Nationals.”
Five other Southern California teams competed at the National Championship this year. UCLA finished third over Minnesota, putting two SoCal teams in the top three in the country. Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, the Section Championship winner, also competed in the Gold Draw.
UC Santa Barbara, UC San Diego, and USC all played in the Silver Draw after tough pool play matches.
All Southern California teams were present for that final match.
“Watching a SoCal team in the final was an amazing experience,” UCSB Senior Daniel Barrington said. “To see players out there that we have grown close with over the past few years get an opportunity to battle on what is perhaps the biggest stage any of us will ever get to play on was truly humbling and so much fun.”
“We all felt a companionship with UCI and wanted them to win so badly,” Gaucho Club President Lincoln Howarth said. “When they lost, a lot of us described the feeling as if we had lost as well. Since we were all coming from the same section, it felt like a fight that we were all in together. Watching UCI do so well and make it to the finals was like watching a close friend succeed.”
You can’t help but support a team like UC Irvine. They make friends everywhere they go. The SoCal teams know this, but now the nation knows it.
In true UCI fashion, when asked to reflect on the experience, the Anteaters all expressed their gratitude.
“I just want to thank everyone involved with this event, especially the USTA,” Luu said. “Thanks for giving students a chance to play competitively and experience it all through such an amazing event and team scenario.”
For more information on the Tennis On Campus National Championship, visit the Tennis On Campus website. For more information on your local TOC programs, contact Madeline Segura (Segura@scta.usta.com) with USTA Southern California.