Sunday, May 15, 2016

Northwestern & Stanford advance to NCAA 2nd round

It was a chilly day in Chicagoland, meaning the action planned for the Northwestern University outdoor courts moved inside. There, the men's tennis teams representing Stanford University and Northwestern University prevailed over the spirited opposition of University of Notre Dame and Valparaiso University, respectively, to reach the second round of the NCAA playoffs. The two victors will meet on Sunday afternoon to determine which will be one of 16 teams to head to Tulsa for the tournament's conclusion.

The day began with the Stanford Cardinal winning a tight doubles point, in which all three matches went to 7-5, with Stanford's Tom Fawcett and Maciek Romanowicz getting the win at #1 and Notre Dame's Grayson Broadus and Nicolas Montoya winning at #3. It came down to #2, where Stanford's David Wilczynski and Nolan Paige fought off a couple of game points at 6-5* to break and claim the doubles point.

Moving to singles, Stanford's blue chip freshman Sameer Kumar got off to a shaky start at #5, going down a double break at 0-3* before righting the proverbial ship and dominating Kenneth Sabacinski 6-3 6-1 to give Stanford a 2-0 lead. Sophomore standout Tom Fawcett, from nearby Winnetka, proved why he's one of the top players in the country (ranked #15) with his 6-2 6-1 takedown of #35 Quentin Monaghan at #1. Fawcett controlled his service games with his howitzer and outplayed Monaghan from the baseline en route to a 6-2 6-1 win.

"Tom's been a leader for us since the day he arrived on campus last year as a freshman," said Stanford coach Paul Goldstein. "Particularly with his work ethic, I've said it a bunch of times but I didn't want to come in and put a freshman at #1 the whole year last year and have to do it again this year. He's just owned that responsibility and I thought he came out -- a true workmanlike effort. I have a lot of respect for Quentin. So I was really pleased for [Fawcett]."

Notre Dame's only wins on the day were both thanks to a freshman: Grayson Broadus. In addition to his doubles win, Broadus overpowered Cardinal senior captain Maciek Romanowicz 6-3 6-3 at #6 singles.
Of Broadus, Notre Dame coach Ryan Sachire said, "Grayson has done a heck of a job this year. He is a guy who has improved throughout the year. We talk about the effect that our seniors have had on our program -- they've set the tone and the younger guys have really benefited. I think Grayson, the level you saw from him today was a byproduct of all that he's put into it, but it starts with our seniors and the culture they've set."

Nolan Paige. (c) Jonathan Kelley, On the Rise
It was a big day for Stanford senior Paige, who also got the clinch in singles. Paige's 7-6(3) 7-5 win over fellow senior Alex Lawson was particularly clutch as Notre Dame was up a set and on serve in the second set at the two remaining singles spots (#2 and #3). Paige trailed early in his first set tiebreaker but reeled off the last 5 points (it may have been 6) to take the set. Then at 5-5 in the second set, he broke Lawson at love to serve for the match. Paige double faulted on his first match point, but a backhand down the line pass gave Stanford the win.

"That's two seniors going at it, two athletic guys, with just I think one break all match, and it comes down to execution," said Goldstein. "And Nolan, the last two games, executed."

About clinching both the doubles point and the match, Paige said, "I was really locked in. I was feeling the flow. I wasn't really thinking. It felt good." When asked if he felt added pressure knowing his two teammates were down in their matches, he expressed faith in them. "I knew I didn't have to win. I knew [Michael Genender and David Wilczynski] could come back. But yeah, I was playing really confident and going after my shots." Paige, who will be attending Vanderbilt Divinity School next year, reflected on what it means that every match could be his last. "Yeah, I was thinking about that this morning. I've been playing tennis since I was 3 years old, and I just want to make every match count, just do my best, because I'm definitely going to miss it next year."

Notre Dame's seniors surely hoped for a better result in their final match (although Monaghan and Lawson will be playing doubles in Tulsa, and 2015 NCAA semifinalist Monaghan will also be playing singles). But Sachire took time to praise the culture his five seniors set for his program.

I asked Sachire specifically to talk about what Monaghan has meant to Notre Dame. "Q -- and all the seniors on our team, but him in particular -- works so hard and from a culture perspective, he's advanced our program a couple of levels since he's been at Notre Dame," said Sachire. "I've never coached a harder worker, I've never coached a fiercer competitor than Quentin Monaghan. He's won so many big matches and come through in so many big moments for us. He's a champion."

Goldstein was hyped up by the win. "That's a class team, led by a class coaching staff," said the former Cardinal. "We knew it was going to be tough and it was. It was everything we expected it to be in terms of how those boys competed. We had several matches this year, where we lost that identical match. We came out today and that's the match we've been losing -- we get up a little bit against a quality opponent but we're right there, but we don't put our foot on the pedal and finish. And we finished today, and that's what I'm pleased about."

Northwestern ekes out a 4-1 win

There were some understandable nerves for Northwestern, hosting a regional for the first time since the NCAAs were expanded to the current 64-team format in 1999. Expectations ran high for a win over Horizon League champion Valparaiso. In addition, they faced an impressively loud contingent of Valpo fans who made the 70 mile drive from the northwest Indiana school. Mostly, though, they faced a young, energetic, and talented Valpo team (made up entirely of players from the Big 10/Midwest region), which made the Wildcats work for all four points they won.

"Credit to Valpo. I thought they were outstanding," said Northwestern head coach Arvid Swan. "Really well coached team, plays with a lot of energy and heart. It was very clear to me why they won their league, and in quite a convincnig fashion. We're happy to advance."

Valparaiso came to play from the first point. Their #1 dobules team of Jeffrey Schorch and Charlie Emhardt went up an early break on Fedor Baev and Strong Kirchheimer while at #3, Chad Kissell and Kyle Dunn came back from an early break to get back on serve at 3-4 against Alp Horoz and Mihir Kumar on a ball that touched the roof. But then a fired up Kumar helped engineer a break and the Cats held for the 6-3 win and the doubles point. (Sam Shropshire and Konrad Zieba had previously won 6-2 at #2.)

Sam Shropshire & Konrad Zieba. (c) Jonathan Kelley
Shropshire was excellent in singles, and handily won his match 6-3 6-2 over Kissell at #2, putting NU up 2-0. When Strong Kirchheimer, Northwestern's winningest player this year, went up 6-1 in his match (one of 5 first-set wins for NU), it looked like it could be a quick afternoon. But then suddenly the worm turned, and Valpo came alive.

At #4, Emhardt beat Baev 6-2 7-5. According to Valpo's Ministry of Information, this marked the first time a Horizon League team hasn't been shut out at the NCAAs since 1994. That's 22 years, folks.

At #1, Schorsch went up 5-2* in the 2nd on Zieba and at #3 Dave Bacalla did the same to Kirchheimer. And at #5, Garrett Gardner split sets with freshman Ben Vandexhorn and went up 2-0 in the third. All of a sudden it was close. Things were tense. The crowd was super into it.

"The crowd really lifted them up," said Valparaiso head coach Jim Daugherty of his players. "As a matter of fact, when the chips seemed down in the middle of the match and we lost a lot of first sets, the crowd really lifted them up. We really needed that. They had to dig deep and the crowd really helped them dig deep. I'm glad they played off of that well."

But neither Schorsch nor Bacalla could serve out their second sets. Kirschheimer ended up winning the last 5 games of the match to put Northwestern up 3-1. "That guy's a winner," said Swan of Strong. "He's had a great year -- I think he's lost one dual match. I thought he played really well at the end of the second set, he gave no unforced errors, made every return, made Bacala play on every shot."

At #1, Zieba and Schorsch went to a tiebreaker, which the Crusader won to the delight of the Valpo fans. However, just then, Vandixhorn, who had broken back for 2*-2 and then dug out of a 15-40 hole at 3*-3, broke for 5*-3 on a second consecutive deciding point and quickly served out the match. The freshman got his umpteenth clinch of his remarkable season.

"I think we were all a little bit nervous so just to play hard and get through that first one is good for our team as we look forward to tomorrow," said Vandixhorn, who denied this blogger's joke that he tanked the second set just so he could set up another yet clinch. "He started making a few balls, I didn't really hit out on my shots, and let him step into the ball." He also was disappointed with his serve, and was seen practicing that shot after the match.

About Vandixhorn, Swan said, "The guy's clutch. He's mentally tough, hard worker, great kid. Pleased that we have him on the team, that's for sure." Senior Kumar also had praise for the youngster from the northern Chicago suburb of Libertyville. "Ben has done incredibly. He's just so tough. He stays the course in all his matches. Things get rocky, he always ends up on top." Reflecting on his own four years, Kumar said, "Our team has just improved so much and we're setting records. It's been a great journey for me."

Looking ahead to Sunday, both teams are trying to accomplish something big: the first Round of 16 NCAA appearance under the current coaches. True, Goldstein has only been coach for 2 years now, but given Stanford's legacy and his own expectations, the Cardinal no doubt expect to be contending for national champion soon. Swan, for his part, has coached the Wildcats since 2007, and has taken what was a middle-of-the-Big 10 team to unseen heights.

And then there are the Kumars. A senior and a freshman, from a few hours away in central Indiana, Mihir and Sameer will be playing against each other at 1:00 p.m. at #3 doubles on Sunday. Mihir said he was happy that his parents got to see both kids play at the same site.

Sameer Kumar cheerleading following his singles win.
(c) Jonathan Kelley, On the Rise
"We've never played in a competitive match before," said Mihir. "So it's ironic that what could be my last match will also be the first time I've played my little brother. It'll be interesting to see what colors my parents will be wearing."

When asked, their mother said their father had a plan.

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