The #25 Boise State men's tennis team completed a doubleheader sweep over 14th-ranked Alabama with a tense 4-3 victory over the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa to reach the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament for a second appearance. The impressive victory was just hours after the Boise State women's team had completed a similar feat in downing #24 Alabama in the women's Tournament.
The Bronco men had reached the second round of the Tournament five times in the last six years only to be denied (twice by a 4-3 score) that elusive Sweet Sixteen berth.
Coach Greg Patton's Army fought off the talented Tide as well as hundreds of Alabama fans to avenge an earlier loss and earn a trip to the National Championships in College Station, Texas against #3 Ohio State. Alabama defeated the Broncos 4-0 in the semifinals of the Blue-Grey Tournament earlier this season. Pure heart and desire, not to mention a healthy dose of talent, put the Broncos over the top. For a team that had been searching for a signature win such as this the last two years, it could not have come at a better time.
The Boise State doubles teams fought off service breaks to initiate the upset. After Matt Solomon and Blane Shields were defeated 8-3 by Ricky Doverspike and Michael Thompson, Clancy Shields and Stanley Sarapanich rallied from a 3-1 deficit to capture an 8-5 victory. #43 Kean Feeder and James Meredith matched #23 Dan Buikema and Mathieu Thibaudeau point for point, game for game, until those two duos found themselves tied at eight games apiece. The Broncos quickly gained a 5-2 lead in the tiebreaker, but Buikema and Thibaudeau rallied back and served for multiple match points. Much to the dismay of the Crimson faithful, Boise State won each of those points and finally took the win as Patton's group grabbed the early lead.
Action continued in singles play and with a great team such as Alabama playing on their home courts no less, the Broncos still had their work cut out for them. Michael Jung quickly beat Blane Shields 6-1, 6-4 and Billy Mertz, who usually plays #3 singles for the Tide, beat Sarapanich at #5 singles 6-2, 6-1. The tide had definitely turned and Alabama rolled in front 2-1.
#81 James Meredith played like a senior rather than a freshman as he knocked off Buikema 6-4, 6-3 to even the match but more importantly, serve notice that the Broncos meant business. They were either going to win or this match was going the distance. As it turned out, both were true. Speaking of freshmen playing with nerves of steel, Cristian Hodel was amazing today. More on him later.
#72 Feeder knew he was in for a tough match against Saketh Myneni, the #22 player in the nation. He battled gamely but fell 7-5, 6-2 and the Tide was one match away from a home victory. With their backs against the wall, it was Clancy Shields, whose leadership has been a great presence for the Broncos all year, who came to the rescue.
The 24th-ranked Shields faced a "classic serve and volleyer", according to Patton, who rushed the nets each and every point. "Clancy played in a composed trance," Patton said, swinging away with his nuclear powered strokes." Shields was not to be denied, toppling Thibaudeau 6-4, 4-6, 6-2 at #2 singles to even the score at three apiece.
All eyes turned to the aforementioned Hodel, who was battling another freshman, Thompson of Alabama. Hodel had slipped behind 6-4 but rebounded for a 7-5 second-set win. Hodel and Thompson put on an exhibition for the crowd who had all gathered to try to send the Tide over the top. The two went back and forth for over 30 minutes after everyone else had finished their matches. It was 2-2, then 3-2 Hodel, then 3-3. Hodel grabbed a 4-3 lead only to see Thompson come back and tie it. Each player held their serve throughout the set in this emotional battle. Once again, the two were tied at five.
Hodel came out with the boisterous Tuscaloosa crowd cheering wildly against him. The other Bronco players were courtside showing their support. Hodel once again showed the poise of a much-senior player and held his serve once again to take a 6-5 lead. Finally, he won key early points and had Thompson on the ropes. Much similar to the Bronco women's victory earlier over Alabama in the Women's Tournament, Hodel hit the match point for a winner and the jubilant Boise State team rushed to congratulate him.
Game, set, match. A 5-2 loss to USC in 2007 and losses to Mississippi and Texas in the National Team Indoor Championships and to Texas A & M at the NCAA Championships later that year, 4-3 losses to A & M, Stanford and Pepperdine last year and the January disappointment at UCLA as well as the 4-3 loss to Vanderbilt at the Indoor Championships this season were all forgotten. A Boise State team that had been so close to climbing to the next level had finally broken down the barrier at the perfect time. Tournament time.
Patton and company are back in Boise now, relishing their sweet victory to be sure, but also grounded in the knowledge that a fierce opponent awaits them in #3 Ohio State. But the Broncos have that big win under their belts now, the one that has eluded them over several years. Now, this team can say what only one other Boise State team in school history has been able to say:
"They're heading for the Sweet Sixteen and a date with destiny!"