Memory Lane: NCAA champs!

EACH WEEK, WE'LL TAKE A LOOK BACK AT A MEMORABLE MOMENT IN ILLINI HISTORY, THANKS TO THE WORDS OF THE NEWS-GAZETTE

This week: The Illini are headed to another men's tennis Sweet 16 in Athens, Ga. Not long ago, they left the finals as unbeaten NCAA champs.

Headline: Dream team!

Date: May 21, 2003

By BRETT DAWSON

ATHENS, Ga. — Craig Tiley had no reason to believe.

The year was 1993, and Tiley, a first-year college tennis coach with an interim tag, was captain of a sinking ship at Illinois.

The Illini went 4-23 that season and finished the year looking up in the standings at the rest of the Big Ten.

If you'd asked Tiley then, he'd have told you just what he said last week: That Illinois was on a collision course with greatness; that it was a matter of when, not if, the Illini would conquer college tennis.

Ten years ago, you might have called him crazy. Today, you can call him a seer.

'We were at the very bottom,' Tiley said Tuesday after Illinois' 4-3 win against Vanderbilt sealed an undefeated season and the school's first NCAA tennis championship. 'And now we're at the very top.'

Tiley never doubted it for a moment.

He questioned, certainly, whether this would be the year, especially after Vanderbilt took Tuesday's doubles point en route to a 3-2 lead.

But in the grander sense, Tiley never faltered, never wavered in his opinion that he'd someday win college tennis' top prize at Illinois.

Lucky for him, he wasn't alone.

'Our junior class, we could have gone just about anywhere we wanted to, including to a lot of schools with more tennis tradition than Illinois,' said Phil Stolt, a winner at No. 4 singles Tuesday. 'But we shared Craig's vision of winning a national title at Illinois. We believed we could get it done.'

In their third season — and Tiley's 10th — they did it. And in high style.

Illinois' 32-0 season was the third undefeated year in NCAA tennis, the first by a school other than Stanford. And the Illini's 32 wins are the most ever by an undefeated tennis squad.

'To go 32-0 against the competition we played is absolutely amazing,' Tiley said. 'I think at some point, we'll look back and get a sense that this was one of the best college teams ever.'

That team got all it could handle in its national title match.

For the second straight day, Illinois stumbled in doubles, watching Vanderbilt take two of three matches to claim the doubles point.

And Illinois fell behind 3-2 after the Commodores claimed two of the first four singles matches to finish. That left Illinois with two players — Stolt and Chris Martin — still on the court, each needing to win to claim the national title.

Stolt finished first, beating Vandy's Scott Brown 6-4 in the third set. Martin was close behind, and he made his teammates (and Tiley) sweat out the closing moments.

'I've had so many matches in juniors that have prepared me for that situation,' said Martin, who won the clinching match in a semifinal win against Stanford. 'I felt really comfortable.'

Leading 5-4 in the third set and serving for the match, Martin fell behind love-40, only to rally to force deuce.

His cross-court winner on the third deuce of the set was called out by his opponent, Vanderbilt's Lewis Smith.

But that call was overruled by the umpire, clinching the match for Martin and setting off a wild celebration for the Illini.

'I just ran over onto the court and picked (Martin) up in the air, and everybody was going crazy,' Stolt said. 'All our fans and alumni started running out on the court. It was a wild scene.'

And, for Tiley, a welcome one, one he'd been imagining for the better part of a decade.

'I didn't look at anything,' Tiley said. 'I just looked up. I couldn't believe that we had done it. It was disbelief at first, and then relief, and then total joy and excitement.'

It isn't common practice for tennis teams to cut down the nets — that's strictly a basketball tradition — but nobody would have been surprised to see the Illini try it, given the celebration that ensued Tuesday.

'Maybe I should go get a piece of it,' Stolt said. 'Bring it home with me.'

He didn't.

The Illini will return instead with a national championship trophy. In time, Tiley said, they'll also gain some perspective, and with it the realization that they're a part of college sports history.

For most of the Illini, the coach said, that will take some time to sink in.

But some of them were catching on pretty quickly.

'Anybody can go to Stanford and be part of another national title,' Illinois junior Amer Delic said. 'But I came to Illinois to win a national championship with Craig. To come to Illinois and be part of the first one — the first of many, hopefully — that's something special.'

 

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