Top-ranked Virginia begins title defense
Reigning champions return loaded roster, hefty expectations despite Jenkins' absence
The No. 1 Virginia men’s tennis team begins the defense of its 2013 NCAA Championship this weekend as it hosts the first four matches of its season, all at the Boar’s Head Sports Club. Up first is a Friday bout with Elon, followed by a Saturday match with either Indiana or Samford as part of the ITA Kickoff Weekend, which leads up to the ITA Indoor Championships. Virginia then faces Boston College and Navy Sunday in a pair of regular season matches.
“It’s going to be a tough weekend,” junior Mitchell Frank said. “It’s not like competing in individual tournaments. It’s definitely going to be a different feel, and I think the guys are excited to get going, but we’ll definitely be tested right off the bat.”
The Cavaliers have made the ITA Indoor Championships their second home in recent years, winning five out of the last six titles, including last year when they defeated USC 4-2 in Seattle. The lone exception came in 2012, when Virginia was upset by Ohio State in the semifinals in Charlottesville. The opening match this year could pose a bigger test than usual, as No. 46 Elon is coming off an upset of then-No. 7 Duke. The winner of that match will advance to play the winner of No. 56 Indiana and No. 65 Samford on Saturday evening, with the losers also facing each other.
As the reigning national champions, coach Brian Boland’s players enter this season with a big target on their backs. However, rather than stepping back from the challenge, the players say they are actually looking forward to it.
“It’s a good thing, because we have the confidence that we’ve done it and we can do it again,” senior Alex Domijan said. “I think everyone feels that pressure, but we’re going to go out and try to do it again.”
The most difficult task for Virginia this year looks to be replacing superstar Jarmere Jenkins, a 2013 graduate. Jenkins almost became the fourth player ever to win the NCAA Tennis Triple Crown — Singles, Doubles and Team — before falling in the Singles final.
“I don’t think you can really replace someone like Jarmere Jenkins,” Frank said. “He’s one of the greatest players in U.Va. history. But I think there’s no doubt in our minds or our coaches minds that this can be the best team in U.Va. history, so it should be exciting journey and we’re excited to get started.”
Leading the team on and off the court will be the three captains — Frank, Domijan and senior Justin Shane. The trio have a collective eight appearances in NCAA Finals, a level of experience that could prove invaluable as the Cavaliers try to make it a fourth straight NCAA Final. Frank and Domijan are two of the best singles players in the country, combining to win the last four consecutive ITA All-American Championships. They’re already impressed with the commitment their teammates have shown to maintaining their status as the best team in the nation.
“We’re off to a great start, and all we need is competition,” Domijan said. “This is the most disciplined team I’ve been on. We take care of ourselves off the court better than any team I’ve been a part of. That’ll help us down the road and makes our jobs easier as captains.”
The veterans will be helped out by an excellent incoming group of freshmen. Rated as the best recruiting class in the nation by the Tennis Recruiting Network, the quartet of Thai-Son Kwiatkowski, Luca Corinteli, J.C. Aragone and Jordan Daigle could contribute immediately for the Cavaliers. This is the second top-ranked class in a row to come into Virginia, with now-sophomores Ryan Shane and Mac Styslinger proving exceptional additions last year.
“We’ve got a lot of first years that we think are going to make a big impact on the team right from the start,” associate head coach Andres Pedroso said. “They’ve shown that they can compete with pretty much anyone in the country, based on their fall results and what they’ve shown in practice. We’re looking for them to play an integral role in our team right from the start.”
Though Virginia finally got the monkey off its back by winning the program’s first national championship last year, the expectations are no lower this year. The coaches and players fully believe this team can make it back to another title, and finishing any lower would likely be considered a disappointment.
“I think this is probably the deepest team we’ve ever had,” Pedroso said. “One of the things that Brian has done with this program year after year is always give us a shot at winning a national championship. They’re as well prepared as they’ve ever been, so we’re expecting a lot of great things from these guys.”