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Tuesday May 22, 2012For Gators, Second Title in a Row Just as Satisfying as First

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

ATHENS, Ga. -- A year ago, when her Florida teammate clinched the third and tying point in the NCAA women’s tennis final, Lauren Embree was left to play the remaining and decisive match. She had fought back from an 0-4 deficit in a three-set bloodbath and suddenly the national title rested on her shoulders.

Moments later, the Gators were raising a trophy after Embree pulled out a gut-check victory in a final-set tiebreaker.

She was reminded of that thriller Tuesday night.

“I’m glad this one wasn’t as dramatic,” Embree said.

But it was every bit as a satisfying.

Maybe even more.

When Embree sent a two-handed backhand past McCall Jones, her match-clinching point at No. 2 singles also doubled as a national championship winner, giving the second-ranked Gators a 4-0 wipeout of top-ranked UCLA and a second straight NCAA team crown before 1,230 at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex.

For Florida (27-1), the title marked the sixth in the program’s history -- more than any other UF sport -- but just the first time the Gators successfully defended a championship.

For Coach Roland Thornqvist, who’s responsible for half of those six titles, the moment was a culmination of a quest he put to his players at the start of the spring.

“I’m really proud of this group,” Thornqvist said after his team’s 21st straight victory, dating to a a Feb. 12 loss at Stanford. “We discovered this year that, without a doubt, it is much more difficult to repeat. There are inherent challenges you have to go through, some growing pains, as defending national championships. Throughout the spring, these guys just showed what kind of will, courage and determination they have.”

At no point were those traits more apparent than Monday when UF took a commanding 3-0 lead on third-ranked Duke, only to watch the Blue Devils rally for three straight points and leave matters to sophomore Alex Cercone, who gutted back from an 0-2 hole in the third set for 5-7, 6-4, 6-3 victory that took three hours, 14 minutes.

Cercone’s win stopped a team match that lasted nearly five hours, yet there were the Gators back on the court 19 hours later facing the nation’s No. 1-ranked squad.

“I was a little bit concerned after yesterday,” Cercone said.

Thornqvist had similar concerns, but also knew there was a reason he’d put his team through oftentimes brutal conditioning sessions -- including a series of unconventional training regimens before the NCAA Tournament -- to prepare them for the title-defense grind.

“I think of all those wind sprints, grass workouts, all the Gator mountains, all those things that are painful, they certainly paid off today,” Thornqvist said. “We could not have rebounded after yesterday’s long battle against Duke and be as fresh as we were today. We played absolutely fantastic from start to finish.”

And it started, of course, with the momentum of the doubles point.

The No. 1-ranked duo of sophomore Sofie Oyen and junior Allie Willie quickly dispatched of sixth-ranked Robin Anderson and Skylar Morton 8-2 on Court 1, then watched as Cercone and junior Caroline Hitimania got hot and put away Jones and Carling Seguso on Court 3 for a UF 1-0 team lead.

That meant the Gators had only to split the six singles matches.

Worth noting: UF came in 25-0 this season when winning the doubles point.

“This team is so physical,” Thornqvist said. “It’s really difficult to win four points on us in singles, so I think that [doubles point] gives us a confidence boost and an edge.”

Even UCLA coach Stella Sampras Webster saw what was coming.

“They seemed like they just took over,” she said.

Cercone was the first to put away her opposing Bruin, blasting Channelle Van Nguyen 6-2, 6-0 to run her NCAA Tournament record to 9-0 at No. 5 singles over the last two years.

“I’m really happy I played such efficient tennis today,” she said.

Oyen proved equally efficient one court over, beating Morton 6-3, 6-2 on Court 4.

That made gave the Gators a 3-0 lead and meant the Bruins (26-3) had to sweep the rest of the matches. Unfortunately for them, one of those matches involved Embree, winner of 17 straight team matches coming in and 11 straight in NCAA play.

Unlike last year, backed into that 0-4 hole, this time Embree she was up a set and thumping McCall 4-0 in the second when all eyes in the stadium turned to Court No. 2.

Someone smelled blood.

“You try not to [scoreboard watch] because it can backfire on you, but I was doing a little bit of it, yes,” Embree said. “As soon as I saw Sofie had won out -- and I was up a set -- I knew there was a chance. Things go through your mind, so you have to stay focused. ... But I definitely wanted to finish.”

Not surprisingly (and very fittingly), Embree did just that, as teammates mobbed her, with Hitimana tackling her to the surface as the latest Gators celebration commenced.
 
Moments later (also fittingly), team captain Joanna Mather kissed the national championship trophy and cradled it while surrounded by her teammates for the second year in a row. Not a bad way for the senior who suffered through a difficult rookie season in 2009 to finish up her career. And just 50 miles from her family’s home in Duluth, Ga., no less.

“It’s just incredible,” Mather said. “Last year, it was such a dramatic match. This year, I think we’re still in such disbelief that we won it again. I just can’t believe it’s over and we did it again.”

Or -- dare we say -- how easy it was.

Make that, how easy it looked.

“It wasn’t easy,” Embree said. “But our goal from the beginning was to try to get back into the championship and give ourselves the best chance to win. We made it.”

She nodded.

“And the second one is just as good as the first.”

By now, it probably feels even better.

 

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