Musings/ Tales from Tulsa
As you Stanford fans probably know by now, the Stanford Women’s Tennis Team, seeded #15, won their 18th NCAA title on May 24, 2016 or as Brian Risso, Stanford’s Sports Information Director, called it “#15 wins #18 in’16”.
No championship happens without some “ups and downs” and there were plenty in Tulsa for the “underdog” Cardinal team. I was fortunate to persuade Associate Head Coach Frankie Brennan to share some tales with The Bootleg readers (full disclosure: I’ve known him since he was a youngster and am particularly close with his Mother)
~ #12 meets #15 in the finals?? If this was Men’s basketball “heads would roll” on the NCAA Basketball Seeding Committee!
~Talk about team effort! Stanford is the first and probably the last team winner not to have a single win in the subsequent individual singles or doubles championships. Must be the coaching!
~ Lots of stars: Senior Krista Hardebeck, vaunted “Gator Killer”, ends her career with 99 wins and two NCAA team titles. Junior and #1 player Carol Zhao returns in the Spring quarter and everybody settles in to a comfort zone one notch lower. Taylor Davidson, easily the Tournament MVP, with “clinchers” vs Texas A&M, Florida, and in in the finals vs Oklahoma State (while cramping). Finishing out the junior class, Caroline Doyle survives “a near death experience” in the doubles to clinch the Elite Eight match vs Michigan, weathering a match point in the process! And what can you say about freshmen Carol Lampl and Melissa Lord? 11-0 in singles, with Lampl clinching the Vandy “upset” to get us into the finals … can you say “unsung heroes!!
~ The Cardinal Women had a losing record (1-2) for the first time in program history heading into the February 5th match vs St Mary’s …. Nobody was dreaming of adding any jewelry at that point.
~ Twenty-three days later, after beating Florida, Coach Forood tells the team “you’re really gonna want to win a NCAA Championship… it’s really fun”. This bit of motivational genius, delivered in Coach Forood’s understated style, ends up on the white board in the locker room for the remainder of the season - which proves you must dream the dream before you can live the dream… even better if you can dream in technicolor!!
~In my 25 years of coaching only twice has the team been down “match, match point” and won. The 2016 team was down “match, match point” twice in ONE TOURNAMENT! (Doyle vs Michigan in the quarters and Taylor vs Oklahoma St in the final!) Hollywood would reject this story as “non-plausible.”
~Coaches beware: better start recruiting some “indoor players” since all but the final team match in Tulsa was played indoors because of rain and Athens, GA (the 2017 tourney site) isn’t any drier.
~Upon returning to the team at the end of March, Carol Zhao (the 2015 NCAA Singles Runner-up), made a racket and string change (Babalot to Yonex), which despite much ‘tweaking” didn’t ever feel quite right and might explain her uncharacteristic rough stretch at the NCAA’s.
~ Finally no competition is complete without an injury report: Luckily for the Card the only damage was a broken toe for Coach Brennan sustained by missing a step while sprinting between courts to coach in the finals. Having to navigate 700 orange clad fans between Ct#3 and #5, he called upon his old
running back skills (he was a running back on a state high school championship team in Vermont). Luckily, a 300 lb. “Pokes” fan recognized him, provided an escort and dutifully waited at the gate while he coached and then “made a hole” each time for the hobbled coach. (As they say, you can’t make this stuff up!)
~ So how does a#12 seed happen to meet a #15 seed in the finals? The Intercollegiate Tennis Association has a computer team ranking system which is published all season. Upon completion of the dual match Spring season, the NCAA tennis Committee takes the results and with rare exception “rubber stamps” the ITA ranking to come up with the NCAA tournament seeds.
There are three problems as I see it. #1: The ITA ranking criteria is not valid and therefore the rankings are far from accurate. #2: The NCAA Tennis Committee lacks the will or the skill to evaluate results and come up with their own rankings/seedings. #3: The NCAA committee consists of administrators (Sports Information people, facilities managers, and a Director of Championships for the Big 12) and some coaches. The Coaches and administrators represent schools who are not known for their tennis prowess, i.e. Air Force Academy, Southern University, Loyola Marymont, and Colgate. The Women’s Chairperson is from Drexel… (one point if you know their location and two points if you can identify their mascot).
There is hope among the tennis coaching community because after a long reign, David Benjamin has stepped down and replaced as CEO by Tim Russell. Tim is an ASU professor, well respected in the community and brings a “fresh eye” to the ranking system as he promises to address the ranking conundrum with new vigor. Stanford even offered up some of our Nobel Prize winning mathematicians in the past but to no avail.
As far as the NCAA Committee is concerned, it would be helpful if they all had a D1 tennis background and knew whether a tennis ball was “pumped or stuffed”!
In 21 seasons coaching the Stanford women’s tennis team, Frank Brennan compiled an eye-popping 510-50 overall record (.911) - most wins of any coach in program history. He is a four-time ITA/Wilson Intercollegiate Coach of the Year and led the Cardinal to 10 NCAA championships, including six in a row from 1986-91 and four perfect seasons (1982, 1984, 1989 and 1990). He was also named the NCAA and ITA Coach of the Decade (for the 1980’s) and and earlier this month was named the Pac-12 Women's Tennis Coach of the Century. Frank is a member of both the Stanford Athletics Hall of Fame and the USTA/International Tennis Hall of Fame. His son, Frankie is currently the Associate Head Coach of the Stanford women’s team.