The 2016 Tennis On Campus National Championships were filled with team firsts, nostalgic lasts, and plenty more unforgettable moments.
Sixty-four teams from all over the United States convened in the quiet town of Cary, North Carolina for the program’s most prestigious event of the year. Five Southern California teams competed this year, and they did not disappoint.
Finishing best of all the SoCal schools was USC. The Trojans finished third at the Southern California Sectional Championships this February, but were on a mission to make this tournament their best of the year. The team pulled out of the National Championships in 2015 due to player schedule conflicts, so the Trojans were excited to go back to the tournament.
“Our mindset going into Nationals was to play well and not to worry about the results,” senior president Darin Poei said of the tournament. “For most of us, this was our last TOC event, so we wanted to enjoy it and live in the moment.”
In fact, five of the six Trojans on the Nationals roster are set to graduate in May. Four of the six were involved in TOC for their entire college career. These last moments were bittersweet.
“Heading into Nationals, we changed our philosophy,” senior captain Javeed Kassam commented. “At Sectionals, we wanted to win the whole thing. After a tough loss to UCLA in the semis, we realized the winning mentality was the wrong mentality. We wanted to take it all in – the tennis, yes, but most importantly the company. Our team was a family now.”
In the first day of pool play, the Trojans took on Ohio State, University of Massachusetts Amherst, and the unpredictable team from University of Arizona. The Trojans had a competitive warm up match against OSU, dropping one set, but winning 28-21 overall.
“We definitely showed some first-match jitters,” Poei said. “We played tight, but managed to pull it out against a solid OSU team. We weren’t expecting such a difficult match in the first round.”
USC then blew through UMass 30-12 in the second match of the day, but knew the Arizona Wildcats would provide some tough competition as the top seed in the L Pool.
“We knew Arizona had a lot to play for,” Kassam said. “A loss would put them in the Bronze Draw, but a win would cause a three-way tie in our pool and could put them into the Gold.”
Heading into the match, the Trojans were anxious to get started, but it was the team camaraderie that pulled them through in the end.
“We were twice as loud as Arizona from the bench even though they had twice as many players,” Kassam added.
The Trojan adrenaline prevailed and gave USC a 30-18 win over the Wildcats and a straight shot into the prized Gold Draw.
There they faced the always-strong Northern California standout Stanford. The Cardinal are TOC veterans and usually a shoo in for the National Championships, typically falling second to UC Berkeley (the four-time National Champs) at their Section Championships.
“We have played Stanford every year at the California Cup, so we knew we had a tough match-up,” Poei said of their first-round Gold Draw opponents. “We thought that if we jumped on them early in the match, that would be enough to get us a victory.”
Despite the pressure, however, the Trojans held strong and entered into the match with zero apprehension. They played hard and fast and loud, left nothing at the door and beat the Cardinal without dropping a set 30-10.
“The score doesn’t quite do justice to how good the team was,” Kassam said. “We just executed better than we had done before.”
Into the Quarterfinals the Trojans went. They faced University of North Carolina, who had just taken out fellow SoCal team, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
UNC looked strong against the Mustangs. Things were close through the end of doubles, but the Tar Heels really pulled ahead during the singles sets. The depth of this team was incredible, as UNC pulled out their second string players and substituted in their stars when the matches got tight. The Trojans knew they had their work cut out for them.
The Trojans kept things competitive through doubles, dropping both sets, but only going down by three heading into singles. Just as we saw in the match against the Mustanags, UNC pulled ahead in singles, putting the Tar Heels ahead by nine going into mixed. Senior Colin Tseng and Freshman Lacy Schneemann would need to pull out a win in mixed to push the match into Overtime. The Trojans fell short, however, losing 4-6 in the final set, finishing 20-30 against the eventual 2016 runners up.
Their sights were now set on a #5 finish overall. Into the North Bracket of the Gold Draw they went, facing University of Wisconsin. The Trojans beat out the Badgers in a tight 24-21 win. For the final match-up of the tournament, the Trojans would face the 2015 National Champions – Cal Berkeley, who had just defeated the University of Virginia 30-10 for their chance at fifth place.
“In our TOC careers at USC, we had never beaten Cal before,” Poei commented on the match up. “We had lost to Cal in our last Nationals appearance two years ago. For five of us on the team, this was our last match representing USC. We really wanted to finish our TOC careers with a win over Cal.”
“Going into the tournament, we joked that we could beat anyone… except for Cal,” Kassam said. “It was the one team we wanted to beat so badly. We went into the match knowing it was going to be our last. We had to leave it all on the court.”
The lady Trojans took down the lady Bears 6-4, while the Tseng and Poei lost 4-6. The score was tied heading into singles. Kassam won his set, but Senior Anna Rudakova lost hers. Still, the Trojans were up by one singular game heading into mixed doubles. All they had to do was win the final set and 5th place would be theirs.
“Cal has always been Colin’s kryptonite, so we changed things up a bit and put him into mixed for redemption,” Kassam said.
Tseng and Schneemann responded to the Cal comeback and immediately switched into another gear. They broke serve to go up 5-3 in the final minutes of the match. Tseng would serve out the match, and Schneemann would play the net as aggressively as she had all tournament, blasting a swinging volley through the Bears to clinch 5th place.
“Colin left it all out there,” Kassam said of the match. “It was really inspiring to watch that last mixed match.”
“It was truly the perfect ending to our club tennis careers,” Poei said.
Cal Poly San Luis Obispo Mustangs
Another strong finish for SoCal was shown by Cal Poly, who finished 11th overall. Heading into Nationals, the Mustangs had high hopes as the winners of the Southern California Sectional Championships.
“We knew to beat any team there, we would have to play well as a team, but we liked our chances against any opponent,” graduate student and club president, Matt Giordano, said of their hopes going into tournament.
To get to the Gold Draw, the Mustangs had to defeat Carleton College, Columbia University, and the College of William and Mary. The team pulled out all three wins relatively easily on Day 1 and faced UNC in the first round of Day 2.
“UNC on Friday morning was a tough way to start the Gold Draw,” Giordano said. “They had a lot of depth and experience in the big Nationals matches. The match was friendly, and even though we lost, we were all friends by the end of the match.”
The Mustangs played hard, but proved to be no match for UNC. The Tar Heels took out SLO 30-16.
Cal Poly’s team has three graduating players – three of their male starters – so this tournament meant a lot to them.
“Honestly, I think our team might have had more fun off the court than on it this year,” Giordano added. “We had a chance to explore the city and great restaurants. The host hotel was the perfect location to relax and meet the other teams.”
Adding to the experience, the Mustang parents came out in full force for this year’s tournament.
“Our parents helped make the experience what it was,” Giordano said. “They have always been our biggest supports, traveling all over Southern California, to Arizona, and North Carolina without complaint. Having them cheering for us helped us win close matches throughout our club tennis career.”
For 11th place, the Mustangs beat out University of Minnesota. The team was down by two heading into mixed, but Junior Christi Tain and Grad Student Jurgen de Jager fired back on court against the Gophers, taking the match and winning by one game – 25-24 final score.
UCLA was the third and final team to make it into the Gold Draw this year.
“Going through pool play, I thought our team played extremely well,” Senior President Chika Matsumoto said of the Bruins. “Teamwork shone through especially in pressure situations, confidence was driving each player and everyone focused their intensity when it mattered most.”
The Bruins blew through Georgia Tech, Illinois Tech, and Northwestern in the first day of matches. They faced a tough Cornell team in the first round of the Gold Draw.
“Our loss to Cornell was so tough.” Matsumoto said. “There was so much on the line and you could feel the intensity was at a whole new caliber.”
The Bruins won both doubles sets in a tiebreaker, so the team was up by two heading into singles. Cornell stepped up their game, however, and took both singles sets in a commanding fashion. Heading into mixed, the Bruins were down by four games but they weren’t going down without a fight.
Sophomore Joy Huang and Junior Ishaan Choubal played a tough mixed set, and pulled out the win in a tie-breaker. The match headed into overtime, but the Bruins dropped the first game in OT giving the Big Red the win and a place into the second round. The Bruins were shell-shocked.
“Our whole team needed some time to re-group. We headed off for lunch, steamed off and tried to re-set our minds.”
The break didn’t help however, as the Bruins fell to the runners up from the 2015 Championship, University of Minnesota. The Gophers finished first at their Section Championships this year, carrying most of their roster from the year previous. The Bruins fought a hard fight, but lost 23-26.
“After our three-game loss, our team morale was running low,” Matsumoto remembered. “Going into our third match we decided to bring back the energy by changing it up.”
For their match against Dartmouth, the UCLA coaches let the students decide the line-up. Doubles players were playing singles. Singles players were in playing doubles. The team couple was playing mixed.
“This was refreshing for all of us and we focused on enjoying the game instead of scrutinizing ourselves over the small errors.”
The Bruins defeated Dartmouth and faced Georgia for 13th place. Georgia came primed and ready for the 8 a.m. match, beating out the Bruins 23-21.
UC Santa Barbara Gauchos
The final two Southern California teams were UCSB and San Diego State, the number four and five finishers at 2015 Section Championships. Both faced incredibly strong pools and both placed into the Copper Draw after day 1.
UCSB faced University of Miami, Penn State, and North Carolina State in pool play, each match was tough, but the young team of Gauchos showed their grit and played tough in all three heartbreaking matches.
“Half of our team was new this year,” senior captain Robin Young said of their Nationals roster. “We lost three pivotal players last year, so we added two freshmen and a junior transfer. Even though our team was new, everyone exceeded my expectations. Every single player fought hard for every point and gave it their all.”
Coming off of two tough losses in pool play, the Gauchos wanted to end the day with a win. To place in the Bronze Draw, the team would have to take out NC State and they almost pulled it off. The match was all tied up heading into mixed, and it was tight all the way to the bitter end.
Cal Poly was on hand cheering on their SoCal teammates, but the support wouldn’t help the Gauchos get the job done. They fell to NC State in a set tiebreaker, losing the sudden death point at 4-4.
Day two and the Gauchos finally got their first W. They got two wins right off the bat over Lamar University and Iowa State in the Copper Draw. The Gauchos fell to eventual Copper Draw winner, DePaul, in the semifinals. They played University of Massachusetts for third place. The team fought hard and finished 29-16 over the Minutemen.
“Our team is looking solid for next year,” Young said. “I am the only senior, so with a young team, there is a lot of room to grow. It was great to see how my teammates reacted to the whole experience at Nationals. They want to work even harder at practice now, so they can come back next year.”
San Diego State Aztecs
San Diego State was the only SoCal team that had never been to the Championship before. The Aztecs are one of the newest clubs to the Southern California section, but have grown to be one of the strongest teams – on and off the court – in fewer than four years.
Senior President Jenny Budd started the club as a freshman. It was slow going at first. It took months to be recognized by the school. Recruitment was low and the team was weak. At first, practices involved only five players.
Fast forward a few years, the Aztecs are a fully functioning club, with dedicated student leaders, and now enough players to field three teams at tournaments. Budd’s dream was to see her team play at Nationals before she graduated, and in 2016, just a few weeks before dawning her cap and gown, she and her teammates represented Southern California at the National Championships.
“We were so excited to make it to Nationals,” Budd said. “We expected to see a lot of great competition and were excited to raise our level to match it. Arriving at the venue, we felt the energy from the other schools and appreciated all of the work from the staff that went into making the event what it was.”
In pool play, the Aztecs started off the day with a win over University of Iowa 24-23. The next two rounds were not as fruitful, however. SDSU faced the Midwest section winners Michigan Wolverines in round 2, falling 30-19. And in the final match of the day, the Aztecs fell to Georgia College 20-27.
“It was a tough loss,” senior Megan Trippet said. “I think we were all exhausted. It was the last match of the day, and we were still feeling that long day of travel from the day before.”
This put the Aztecs in a three-way tie for placement into the Silver, Bronze, and Copper draws. Tournament staff had to then look at the number of games lost, putting SDSU in last place of the tied teams and into the Copper Draw.
“Our team was pretty shocked when we realized how close the difference really was,” Trippet said. “It really put the concept that every game counts into perspective.”
The Aztecs played Harvard in the first round of the Copper Draw. The Crimson beat out the Aztecs by only a few games, and went on to advance to the finals falling to DePaul.
SDSU placed 5th in the Copper, beating out Iowa State 23-21 in the last match.
“Traveling across the country with our team was unanimously the highlight of the season for us,” Budd said. “It was an amazing experience in terms of team bonding and a great way to end the year.”
“We have three or four players graduating this year and they will be deeply missed next year,” Trippet said. “Still, we’re excited for the semesters ahead now that we’ve made a name for ourselves in the program.”
Trippet and fellow fifth year Connor Jacobs will step up as team leaders when Budd graduates this May.
For more information on the 2016 National Championships, click here.