It was 2011 when the UCLA tennis club was last in the Tennis On Campus National Championship final. They won it that year over Florida. Since then, the team has struggled to get back to the final. They have found themselves in plenty of semifinal matches and have had plenty of opportunities, but always seemed to fall heartbreakingly short.
This year was different.
The Bruins started strong, taking out Georgia College and Rutgers with relative ease. They faced Michigan in their third and final round of pool play, and the Bruins did not approach the match lightly. The Wolverines had won the championship in 2017, and UCLA knew better than to underestimate them.
The Bruins went to work and earned wins in the men’s doubles, women’s doubles, and men’s singles sets. They were up five games heading into mixed and were able to pull out a 29-23 win, which secured them a spot in the Gold Bracket.
The first round of bracket play was a walk in the park. The Bruins took no prisoners and beat Maryland 30-9. The quarterfinal match, however, did not go so smoothly.
They faced University of Miami – a team who had earned the reputation of being fierce competitors and playing contentious matches. UCLA came primed and ready, however. The Bruin men’s doubles pair of Alex Gaal and Maalik Konop-Defreitas posted a 6-3 win, while Tasia Mochernak and Michelle Hao battled back from a 3-5 deficit to earn a 6-5 victory. The Bruins threw three different players into the women’s singles set to try to throw off Miami’s former varsity player, but earned only two games. That loss was almost completely negated when junior Garrett Chun took the court in men’s singles. He gave up one game in that set, which gave the Bruins a slight cushion as they headed into mixed. If Gaal and his partner Alex Ryan could pull of a win in the mixed doubles set, they would win the match.
The set started with some powerful rallies and heated exchanges between the teams. An official stood guard through the whole set. She overruled two of Miami’s line calls, which caused an uproar from the Miami bench. She then warned the team that another bad line call and more bad behavior would result in a code violation.
The set continued, and the Bruins found themselves in a set tiebreak. With UCLA up 3-2, Miami made another questionable call, but it was quickly overruled by the official. This would make it 4-2, and with the third overrule and emotional eruption from the Miami team, they were given a code violation and a point penalty. That meant UCLA would then win the tiebreak 5-2, and the match 25-23.
It wasn’t the way the Bruins wanted to win, but tournament officials upheld the penalty, and the Bruins advanced to the semifinals.
It was a familiar scenario. A talented team of Bruins one match away from the final. They had been here before. Many times.
Eight times to be exact.
“Entering the final day, I knew to be cautious with my hope because we had lost so many times in past semifinals,” Club founder and coach Mark Otten said.
This time, they faced Duke.
The Bruins were energized to start the match. Konop-Defreitas/Gaal posted a 6-0 win in men’s doubles, which gave Mochernak/Hao the momentum to finish out their set 6-4. Bruins were up by eight going into singles, and Garrett Chun fought off set points to post another set victory. Women’s singles quickly went down 0-2 versus a tough Duke player. Hao subbed in and got the Bruins four more games for their tally. Gaal and Ryan were up seven games going into mixed. They played some nervy tennis to clinch their spot in the final. 28-21, UCLA.
In the championship final, the Bruins faced the Cal Bears. Cal Berkeley is a 4-time national champion, and the Bruins knew they had a tough road ahead of them.
The match started with men’s doubles. Konop-Defreitas/Gaal had played incredible tennis all tournament long, but faced a ferocious Cal doubles pair. They stayed competitively, though, putting four games on the board for the Bruins. Next set was women’s singles. Cal’s singles player, Britney Pellouchoud, had made a name for herself throughout the tournament, and as she had done in so many matches before, she added six more games to Cal’s total. Mochernak/Hao brought the energy back to the Bruin bench and put the first set victory on the board for the Bruins. Chun followed, and despite facing two different opponents throughout his match, he pulled out another gutsy six games.
After the first two sets of the match, to some, the finish line looked too far away. However, the Bruins never gave up and never stopped believing they could turn things around. Heading into mixed, the team trailed Cal by only two games.
Gaal and Ryan took the court, and the crowd was buzzing with nervous energy. UCLA would need to win the set by three or more games to win the match outright. A win by anything less than that would put them into overtime or a Supertiebreaker. If Cal won the set, at any margin, they would win the match.
The tension was high, yet all four players held serve before the first change of ends. Cal’s male player, Alan Valdez, held serve in game #5, and Gaal gutted out another hold to make the score 3-3.
It was then Pellouchoud’s serve, and UCLA got off to a 30-0 lead. Cal stormed through the next point to keep the game competitive. Ultimately, it was Alex Ryan’s passing shot that allowed the Bruins to break serve and move one game closer to the title.
Cal almost broke right back. The Bears had two game points on Ryan’s serve, but the Bruins somehow managed to fight them off. The Bruins led 5-3, and Alan’s serve.
Gaal/Ryan fought through the game, and earned themselves two championship points. Valdez saved one of them with a big serve and tied the game at deuce. Hoping to score another free point, Valdez again served to Gaal’s backhand. This time, the Bruin ripped it up the line for a clean winner to clinch the title.
“The team showed incredible courage,” Otten said. “The last three games of mixed doubles were so exciting and memorable for both myself and the team.”
Three other Southern California teams joined UCLA at the championship. And all three pulled off upsets in their pool play matches.
UC Irvine had earned a bid to the National Championship in their run at the 2018 Spring Invitation. The Anteaters were seeded third in their pool, but managed to take out #1 Oregon State, #2 Texas A&M, and #4 Michigan State. In the Gold Draw, they lost to Washington University in St. Louis in a Supertebreaker.
USC was the runner-up at the 2019 Southern California Section Championship. They were seeded second in their pool, but managed to take out #1 Georgia, who was looking to continue the winning streak, after winning at both the Fall and Spring Invitational. They fell to Cornell in a Supertiebreaker in the first round of the Gold Bracket.
UC San Diego had high hopes coming into the tournament. Though seeded #2 in their pool, they had their eyes set on the Gold Bracket. The team however suffered a loss to Arizona State in an 8 a.m. match on Day 1, which ultimately kept them from advancing. While the Tritons went on to beat the #1 seed in Pool O, University of Miami, the early morning loss put them in a three-way tie. Winning percentage determined which teams would advance to which brackets, and UCSD went into the Bronze Bracket.
It was a great week for Team SoCal. Players gave it their all and fought until the very end. As champions, UCLA will receive a bid to next year’s event. They will retain most of their championship team and hope to make another run at the title in 2020.