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The Gators women's tennis team overcame Stanford and the weather Sunday.

Sunday February 24, 2013Gators Refused to be Denied in Latest Chapter of Rivalry with Stanford

The Gators women's tennis team overcame Stanford and the weather Sunday.

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- In case you have been on Facebook too much lately or perhaps too wrapped up in your fantasy baseball team and failed to notice, the Florida-Stanford women's tennis rivalry has heated up in recent years.

No two programs have had more success since the NCAA added the sport to its official championship schedule in the 1981-82 school year. Stanford has won 16 national titles, and the Gators own six national championships, the most of any program on campus.

Stanford dominated the sport in the first decade the NCAA sponsored a championship tournament, winning eight titles until the Gators broke through in 1992 in the days when the "Lisa Raymond Tanning Hour" was a hit around Gainesville.

When these programs meet, something is usually at stake. They have won the past three national titles -- Stanford beat Florida in 2010, Florida returned the favor in 2011 and then swept UCLA last year -- and expect to be in the hunt again this season.

It was time for another Florida-Stanford showdown on Sunday in a match the USTA considered worthy enough to showcase its inaugural "College MatchDay" series. The Florida pep band was on hand. There were cheerleaders and free T-shirts and all the pomp and circumstance of a big-time sporting event.

There was also a standing-room-only crowd of 1,033 at the Ring Tennis Complex, the second-largest gathering in school history for a women's tennis match.

And unlike that historic Alabama-Notre Dame football game a few weeks ago, Sunday's match between the women's tennis giants lived up to the hype.

The final: No. 4 Florida 4, No. 13 Stanford 2.

That doesn't quite do this one justice.

The Gators dropped the doubles point before rallying for a pair of quick wins in singles by Olivia Janowicz at No. 6 and Sofie Oyen at No. 2 singles. Oyen's victory over Kristie Ahn tied the match 2-2 after Stanford's Ellen Tsay knocked off Danielle Collins 6-2, 6-2 at the No. 5 spot.

"We found a nice rhythm in singles to make the points long, and obviously we had some spectacular play at 2 -- because the kid at 2 for Stanford is world-class,'' Gators coach Roland Thornqvist said. "That kid has played Centre Court at U.S. Open."

But that rhythm was disrupted when a light rain began to fall and halted play. With the Cardinal scheduled to fly back to California around 6 p.m., a long weather delay was not what anyone wanted with three singles matches still undetermined.

About 20 minutes after the rain started to fall, Thornqvist asked Alexandra Cercone, Brianna Morgan and Lauren Embree if they would be against moving play inside to the Gators' new Charles R. & Nancy V. Perry Indoor Facility.

Since the building officially opened in December, Thornqvist said the Gators have practiced there about seven times.

They didn't know much more about the place than Stanford.

Still, no problem.

"We told him we wouldn't be upset,'' said Cercone, who was facing Stanford's Krista Hardebeck at No. 3 singles, a player she lost to last month at the Freeman Memorial in Las Vegas. "We've had experience practicing in there and Stanford hasn't. So we figured maybe that could be a one-up. We were excited to go inside."

The move worked out for Cercone, who after losing the first set 4-6, stormed back to win 6-4, 6-3 to put Florida up for the first time in the match, 3-2.

A junior from Seminole, Fla., Cercone was confident she could adjust to Hardebeck's style with tips she picked up in their meeting last month.

"She hits angles. Everything was super fast [in Las Vegas],'' Cercone said. "It was a little bit different conditions here. I think that made a difference. And also ... I was able to strategize more."

After her comeback victory, Cercone than had to wait as Embree faced off against Nicole Gibbs at No. 1 and Morgan dueled Stacey Tan at No. 4.

She could barely stand still as she watched the outcome unfold and the Gators' NCAA-best 111-match home win streak on the line.

"There is a feeling kind of like desperation, honestly, because those two matches are completely out of my control,'' Cercone said. "When we play each other, both of us want to win so badly. We are both so proud. We just want to have that title I guess. The intensity was just the same as a postseason match would have been."

The scene was reminiscent of the one two years ago when Embree outlasted Stanford's Mallory Burdette in an epic match to give Florida the national title on Stanford's home court, snapping the Cardinal's NCAA-record 184-match home win streak.

But before Embree had a chance to play hero again, Morgan defeated Tan 6-4, 3-6, 6-4. The freshman from Beverly Hills, Calif., delivered in the biggest match of her young career, overcoming her second-set loss when Tan's return sailed out for the clinching point.

"After the first set, and the first game of the third set, I mentally wasn't there,'' Morgan said. "Trying to forget about everything else that had happened and kind of hitting the reset button mentally, that kind of helped me.''

The small crowd that waited out the weather delay and stood behind curtains along the baselines once play went inside erupted when it was over. The Gators avenged a regular-season loss last year at Stanford. Sunday was the Cardinal's first regular-season visit to UF in 20 years.

If Thornqvist has his way, it won't be two decades before Stanford comes back.

Not after Sunday's festive-filled atmosphere.

"We talked beforehand that we sort of knew it was going to be the classic Florida-Stanford battle,'' Thornqvist said. "This is what college tennis is supposed to be about, a great [home-and-home] rivalry.

"We have to find a way to sustain this rivalry with Stanford during the regular season because when we went there, they had a packed house with a great atmosphere. I think we did our job here by providing great support and great fan base. This is something we can build on."

With consecutive home win No. 112 in the books, the Gators hit the road for three consecutive matches before returning home March 9 against South Carolina.

After Sunday's thrilling win, the Gators appear able to handle just about anything -- Stanford, losing in doubles, a weather delay, and even a change of venue.

"There is no giving up in this crew here,'' Thornqvist said as he left the building.


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