Winning its first Intercollegiate Tennis Association Division I National Men's Team Indoor Championship wasn't going to come easy for the University of North Carolina Tar Heels, and perhaps, that's the way they wanted it.
Facing a Virginia team that hadn't lost to an ACC foe in 140 contests (non-conference and conference) on its home turf at the Boar's Head Sports Club in Charlottesville, Virginia, North Carolina started off Monday's 2016 ITA National Men's Team Indoor Championship dropping the doubles point and first sets in four of the six singles matches.
But then, something magical happened.
Court by court, the Tar Heels battled back. Winning sets on all the courts they dropped and claiming victories on two others, North Carolina went from seemingly out of the ITA Indoors final to having a legitimate chance to win it.
In the end, that's just what they did.
Buoyed by three-set victories (both in tiebreakers) from Brayden Schnur over Ryan Shane at No. 1 singles and Ronnie Schneider over Thai-Son Kwiatkowski at No. 2 singles, the Tar Heels went from a 2-0 deficit to a 3-2 advantage. The match was ultimately decided at No. 4 singles, where Jack Murray outlasted Mac Styslinger in another three-set battle, 6-4, 0-6, 7-5, setting off a well-earned Tar Heel victory celebration following the come-from-behind 4-2 victory.
The historic win keeps the Tar Heels (10-0) unbeaten this season, while the top-ranked Cavaliers fall to
"Five of the six guys have been around for a long time, so we know they're going to fight; that's a given," said North Carolina head coach Sam Paul. "We sort of panicked a little bit after we lost the doubles point to Oklahoma a couple of weeks ago, but I know they are going to go out there and fight. We had the breaks go our way (Monday). I'm just so proud of our guys.
"This win says a lot about the character of our team," said Paul. "I think that's why the guys are looking forward to challenges like this. They've been to back-to-back NCAA quarterfinals and made the quarterfinals (at the ITA Indoors) last year, so they thrive on it. It doesn't have much to do with me; it has to do with them and how hard they've worked. I'm so proud of them."
Virginia opened the match taking the doubles point with wins at the No. 1 (Shane/Luca Corinteli d. Robert Kelly/Brett Clark 6-3) and No. 3 (J.C. Aragone/Collin Altamirano d. Schneider/Blaine Boyden 6-3) positions.
In singles play, the Cavaliers raced out of the gates, jumping ahead at the No.'s 1, 3 and 5 positions. Aragone pushed Virginia ahead 2-0 with an efficient 6-2, 6-3 win over Kelly at No. 5 singles.
At that point, North Carolina began to forge its rally.
Anudeep Kodali started things off with a strong 6-2, 6-2 win at No. 6 singles over Virginia's Henrik Wiersholm. Schnur then drew North Carolina even with a hard-fought 2-6, 7-5, 7-6 (4) victory over the 27th-ranked Shane.
"I've been in a lot of finals and big situations before, and every time I tell myself that it's not going to be easy," said Schnur. "If it's not going my way, I have to change something or look at myself in the mirror and look at what's going wrong and I did that today. I wasn't holding my serve in the first set and that was definitely the problem. (Shane) was playing some good tennis, but I knew if I could make it close I knew that he wouldn't just be able to keep playing unreal the whole match.
"I decided to step up and focus on my serve and taking it to him and making him play a lot of balls," said Schnur. "In the big situations, I think I stepped up and closed the match the way I would've liked to."
Like Schnur, Schneider (ranked No. 23) battled back from a set-down hole to top Kwiatkowski (No. 2) in another three-set thriller, 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (5). Schneider's win pushed North Carolina ahead 3-2, setting the stage for Murray to close out the contest.
"Me and Thai have had quite a few battles in the past," said Schneider. "This was the first time in the last few that I've gotten him and man, it was a heck of a battle. I was able to stick in it mentally when I was down a break in the third set when he was serving for the match. I played really well and it was the culmination of a great four days."
Murray, ranked No. 89, opened up his match against No. 78 Styslinger with a 6-4 first set victory. He failed to win a game in the second, but jumped out to a 4-0 lead in the decisive third set. Knotted at 5-5 in the third, Murray preserved and found a way to win the final two games to take the set and the match 7-5.
"I actually didn't know what the (team) score was," said Murray. "I just assumed that every court we needed a point, so I was just doing my best to get one for the team and it just happened to be number four. A lot of credit's got to go to Ronnie and Brayden; I think they were both lost first sets and for them to come back and put me in a position to get (win) number four is all on them."
Had Murray not come through at No. 4 singles, Clark was close to pulling off a comeback of his own against Altamirano. After falling 1-6 in the first set, Clark won the second in a tiebreak and was up 5-4 in the third after opening the set in a 1-4 hole. He was serving for the match before Murray's victory ended it all.
"To say that Virginia is a good team is an understatement," said Murray. "They've been the team in college tennis for I don't know how long. To get this one, it feels amazing."