For the first time ever the men's and women's NCAA Tennis Championship will be held concurrently and at Stanford University. This final 16-team gathering is being held May 18-29 on The Farm and will be followed by the men's and women's individual singles and doubles tournaments.
Much like the NCAA Basketball Tournament, the tennis championships is open to all 16 NCAA conference champions plus 48 at-large selections. Last weekend, those 64 teams faced off at 16 regional sites. Unlike baseball, however, every confrontation is an elimination match. The 16 winners arrive in Palo Alto for the "Big Dance" which starts on May 18.
This article will address the women's team championships, the favorites and some teams to watch.
There were three upsets among the seeds in the regionals - only #15 Clemson, #13 Pepperdine and cross bay power #10 California are missing from the field at Taube. Other notables also missing from this year's event are 1994 and 2000 champion Georgia, and 1993 and 1995 champion Texas. However any discussion about the 2006 Championships again begins and ends with Stanford. The Cardinal Women are undefeated, the #1 seed, the two-time defending champion and winner of four of the last five NCAA's... and hosting the 2006 tournament!
The Fighting Irish of Notre Dame are newcomers to the Top 10 with an all-time high #2 seed followed by the usual suspects, #3 USC and #4 Florida. Notre Dame, led by the Thompson twins (Catrina and Christian), is projected to take on the #3-seeded Trojans in the semis. In the other half of the draw, the Florida Gators, if they can survive a titanic first-rounder against UCLA, should then have their annual NCAA engagement with Stanford. Florida is the last team to beat the Stanford women, squeaking by the top-seeded Cardinal in the 2003 NCAA finals in Gainesville. Being the two premier teams of the last 18 years, they have met seven times in the finals, with Stanford winning five matches. In order to teach the final four from their quarter, the Cardinal must survive TCU and (probably) the always-tough Duke team.
I am expecting Miami to give Notre Dame all they can handle in a possible quarterfinal match-up. Miami coach Page Yaroshuk-Tews is Pac-10 trained (UCLA '96) and not likely to be intimidated by the #2-seeded Irish from the Big East Conference. However the Irish are 27-1 and coached by the toughest guy in the tournament, Jay Louderback. Louderback coaches not only the Thompson twins, but also his own daughter, Bailey! Coach Lele Forood and her staff have trepidations about a 6 pm start following the UCLA/Florida contest at 3:00 pm at Taube Stadium. Over the past 20 years the UCLA/Florida matches have lasted longer than some marriages - marathon, gut-wrenching battles. Come early on Thursday for the Stanford/TCU match and catch the drama.
Another interesting Round of 16 match is the "all American" Vanderbilt Commodores (all players from the USA) vs. the Slovakian, Bulgarian, Czech Republic, Canadian all-stars - A.K.A. The Baylor Bears. The 27-3 Bears are the mystery team with not much history on the women's side, but the #5 seed. Foreign players are considered extra dangerous, not only because they slice backhands and volley, but also because they are not intimidated by junior reputations. They've never heard of most American players, nor ever played them - all they know is "you're not Serena or Venus or Lindsey".
Tournament Director Dick Gould has scheduled night matches on a regular basis for the first time in order to allow as many fans as possible to attend. This should only add to the drama as teams must keep busy and loose all day as the anticipation builds for under-the-lights epics.
Stanford's biggest impediment to a third straight championship might be to find a nice quiet motel, taking the player's car keys away, and hoping the boyfriends don't track them down until the celebration on Monday night. Hey boys, I know where they're staying, but I'll never tell.
(More on Friday on the NCAA men's team championship)
Frank Brennan was the Stanford Women's Tennis Coach for 21 seasons (1980-2000), winning an amazing 10 NCAA crowns during that span. He amassed a remarkable 510-50 (.911) overall dual match record, and his players won nine NCAA singles and three NCAA doubles titles. Brennan was Intercollegiate Tennis Association's "Coach of the Decade" for both the 1980's and the 1990's. Brennan's teams won six consecutive NCAA championships from 1986-91, reached the Final Four 18 times and registered a then-record 76-dual match winning streak. He was named to the Stanford Athletics Hall of Fame in 2001 and was inducted into the Intercollegiate Hall of Fame in 2006.
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