Hoos Coast Into Round Of 16
by Paul Montana
Virginia coach Brian Boland said that his team is in excellent position as it advances to the round of 16 this week.
Virginia men's tennis coach Brian Boland didn't exactly predict a team National Championship on Sunday afternoon. But, he came surprisingly close. At the very least, he likes this team's chances better than any Cavalier team that has preceded it.
Moments after the Cavaliers' second consecutive 4-0 drubbing of the weekend at Snyder Tennis Center - this time against Wake Forest - Boland was asked whether he felt this year was "the year." Virginia has been the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament every year since 2008, but has yet to win a team championship.
Boland put his head down, paused, and muttered something about being "political." Then he looked up and gave an answer that was just that. It's a line that the media hears from coaches all the time: "We like to look at every year as our year."
It was the previous comment that prompted that question, though, where Boland hinted that this group is poised to win the program's first team title. The media-savvy coach doesn't often tip his hand to reporters. On Sunday afternoon, though, he did.
"Over the years, I've had a lot of years where I was a little worrisome about this guy or that guy - certainly you're not going to tell the media that," Boland said. "I can honestly tell you I do not have one worry. I truly believe in this team. There's not a single guy that I don't believe in, and isn't ready to get the job done. These guys want it, they understand it, and they know how to go about it.
"Quite frankly, they're in a good place. They really have been around the block enough times. They've learned their lessons, they're smart young men, they're well prepared, and Athens is going to be a lot of fun."
What makes this year's team different from prior years? For one, experience: the only new player in the Cavalier line-up is Jarmere Jenkins, who has proven that he can succeed in big moments at No. 3 singles. Michael Shabaz, Sanam Singh, and Drew Courtney have all taken their play up several notches this year. Boland has long praised the leadership abilities of seniors Houston Barrick and Lee Singer, who have been consistent contributors for the majority of their careers.
Boland also indicated that he has learned from the experience of falling late in the NCAA Tournament three years in a row.
"There's few coaches in the country that have been through this at this level as consistently as I have, and particularly over the past decade," Boland said. "I think there's some things that I've learned that are going to carry us through, hopefully, the next few days as we prepare. Certainly some things that I'm going to talk to the team about, and I hope those things pay off.
"What people do, I think, is they go through processes, and gain experiences, and make mistakes, as well as do things well. We want to take the things that we do well and continue to do them, but also learn from some of the mistakes I felt we've made over the past, and continue to learn. I think if we do that, we're going to be in the right place."
Then, even within this season, the Hoos have never looked more dominant, as 20 days of rest after the ACC Tournament appear to be just what the doctor ordered. Going into that break, Boland told TheSabre.com that he was worried about its duration, referring to the difficulty of remaining focused without a match to prepare for. Looking back, though, Boland admits that the break was exactly what his team needed.
"It was really important for us to have that rest," Boland said. "In hindsight, looking back, we felt like it was too big of a break. But, to be honest, to see the way the team responded over this past weekend, and everything the team's been through both on and off the court, I really believe that this was a necessary time [off]. They were ready to play. We've had a lot of chances to work on the court, and attend to the details that we needed to do to get better, but we've also been able to get in the right emotional place both on and off the court."
Michael Shabaz appeared fresh in his straight-set singles victory against Wake Forest's Steve Forman..
A prime example of the benefit of rest lies in the team's best player, Michael Shabaz. Toward the latter part of the season, Shabaz began to stumble in singles, particularly at the tail end of demanding, multiple-match weekends. Against Duke April 4, Shabaz - then ranked No. 3 in the nation - fell to No. 11 Henrique Cunha 6-3, 6-3, two days after he had won his singles match against North Carolina. In the ACC Tournament, Shabaz held strong for two wins against Miami and Georgia Tech, but then ran out of gas in a rematch against Cunha and Duke, falling 4-6, 6-3, 6-1.
Most relevant to the match against Wake Forest on Sunday, Shabaz had similar struggles previously with the Demon Deacons' No. 1 singles player, Steve Forman. On April 11, Forman picked up Wake Forest's only team point against Shabaz, as Forman emerged with a 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 victory. Again, Shabaz had suited up previously that weekend, having secured a singles victory two days earlier against N.C. State.
After the 20-day layoff, though, Shabaz made quick work of Forman, 6-2, 6-4; their singles match was in fact the first to finish. Both in the service and return games, Forman saw a different Shabaz than he saw three weeks ago.
"I served a lot better [Sunday]," Shabaz said. "I played the bigger points a lot better. I got into some rallies on some big occasions, and I used my forehand to kind of take over. It was great today."
"Shabaz looked good at No. 1, and that's usually a good point for us," Wake Forest coach Jeff Zinn said. "You don't beat Steve Forman very many times like that, and if you do beat him, you usually beat him in three sets."
Shabaz served brilliantly all day, as he did not face a break point once. The only weapon of Forman's that did any damage was his first serve - a big reason why Shabaz lost the April 11 match, and the main reason that Forman won most of his points on Sunday. It was on Forman's second serve, however, when Shabaz went into attack mode, sometimes hitting a winner right off the serve, and more often than not putting Forman on the defensive.
Wake Forest coach Jeff Zinn said the Hoos looked "fresher" than earlier this season.
With its top singles player peaking, Virginia figures to be harder to beat in singles than it was in ACC play - when, of course, the Hoos nevertheless won every match. The Cavaliers are also firing away in doubles. Against Wake Forest, only the tandem of Sanam Singh and Houston Barrick had a hiccup, going down 4-0 early - but then they woke up to win eight of the next nine games for an 8-5 victory.
Comparing Virginia on Sunday to earlier in the season, Zinn said, "I think every team that's good feels fresher after exams, and I think today [Virginia] looked fresher to me. They looked like they had a jump in their step so to speak."
The rest of the tournament will be played in Athens, Ga., and Virginia's first challenge is Duke on Friday, whom the Cavaliers have already beaten twice this season. Boland said the Hoos would take Monday off to rest and see the training staff, then have a light practice Tuesday morning before leaving for Athens later in the day.
Perhaps the most telling sign of Boland's confidence was his repeatedly saying how much fun his team was going to have in Athens. Can anything else be fun besides winning a National Championship?
"I could not feel better about this team," Boland said. "There's just something about this team, and it feels right. These guys have a great level of composure, confidence, determination, and focus, and I see a lot of good things ahead.
"I'm really pleased with the guys. I couldn't be more excited. I can't wait to go to Athens. I wish we were going tomorrow."