URBANA — For the sake of attendance, locals were hoping Brad Dancer’s Illinois team could have knocked off Vanderbilt to earn a berth in the NCAA Tennis Championships, which began Thursday at the Khan Outdoor Tennis Complex on the UI campus.
And with the large crowds and roars during Thursday’s early-morning session, one might have assumed the Illini were in the field.
They were not. Those loud cheers came courtesy the large contingent of Memphis fans who made the 400-mile drive up Interstate 57 to watch the Tigers play in the round of 16 against 11th-seeded Pepperdine.
The hundreds of Tigers fans were vocal in helping spur Memphis on to the doubles point against the Waves, and they kept at it until the decisive match was finished with Pepperdine winning 4-2.
“We’re probably one of the closer teams to this site, so it’s driving distance for us. I felt like we had a little home-crowd advantage. It was nice to see that, and we’re very appreciative of all our supporters who came,” Memphis coach Paul Goebel said.
The boys from Malibu, Calif., felt like they were competing in enemy territory.
“So much credit to Memphis. I’ve never seen them, but they have a great team and they’re supported so well. That really helped them,” Pepperdine coach Adam Steinberg said. “We’re just a little too far to bring many people, but it was great for them. What an amazing season they had; the coach should be really proud of himself and the guys.”
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While the Waves didn’t travel as well as the Tigers, they provided their own boost of energy.
After dropping the doubles point, the Waves returned to the Khan courts for singles with a new energy, shouting words of encouragement to themselves frequently after points and even yelling clear across two or three courts at their teammates during breaks in their own action.
Pepperdine’s players were so energetic that Memphis players complained at least twice to chair umpires about distractions.
“I was proud of the guys because they played with amazing energy — the Pepperdine way,” Steinberg said. “I talked about what we needed to do, the way we play, and we didn’t do that in the doubles at all, and that was disappointing. In the singles, I think we did a good job of fighting; that’s what we are.”
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When Memphis won the Conference USA tournament to clinch an NCAA tournament berth April 21, Goebel told his team he wouldn’t shave his beard until its NCAA run ended. The eighth-year coach had never grown a beard before.
After 31/2 weeks, the facial hair was expected to come off quickly after Thursday’s loss.
“Pretty soon, pretty soon,” Goebel said when asked how soon a razor would glide across his face. “It was fun while it lasted, though.”
It was Memphis’ second straight trip to the NCAA tournament — the only two in program history — and its first in the round of 16. Goebel hopes this is just the beginning for his program.
“It’s a great experience. We’ve been working hard over the years, and it’s kind of a progression for a program like ours that isn’t a traditional Sweet 16 team, but I feel like we’ve put things in place where we can hopefully maintain it and do it again,” he said.
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Third-seeded Georgia was dealt a serious blow to its lineup days before NCAA regional play began last week when No. 1 player KU Singh quit the team because of “personal differences” with the Georgia coaching staff.
Singh, who was ranked No. 6 in singles, last played for the Bulldogs during the SEC tournament in late April.
“The Bulldogs that are (here) are the Bulldogs that are here; we moved on a long time ago,” Georgia coach Manuel Diaz said after his team’s 4-1 win against No. 14 Oklahoma. “We were in this position for about nine matches this year, and our team has used that as a way to come together. We’re really close, just a fighting team, we’re just blue-collared, go out there and play for each other.”
Before transferring to Georgia, Singh spent two years on Dancer’s Illinois team, compiling an 8-5 singles record and a 4-4 mark in doubles during the 2010-11 season after sitting out in 2009-10.
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Not only is he playing without his top guy, but Diaz had to coach against two of his former players in Oklahoma head coach John Roddick and assistant Bo Hodge.
Roddick, the older brother of U.S. Open champion and former world No. 1 player Andy Roddick, was a four-time All-American with the Bulldogs from 1995 to ’98 under Diaz and later spent time at his alma mater as an assistant.
Hodge was also a four-time All-American at Georgia from 2001 to ’04 and was a member of the 2001 national championship team. He was a volunteer assistant under Diaz at Georgia from 2006 to ’08.
“In a way it’s difficult, and in a way it’s fun,” Diaz said of coaching against his former players. “These are great guys that are doing a tremendous job with that program, and it’s just too bad one of us had to go out of the tournament. They have a great team. If I had to pick somebody not to play in the round of 16, it would have been them.”
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Georgia has hosted the NCAA Championships 24 times, including four times in the last 10 years. This is the first time the event has been hosted at Illinois.
“It’s great. The courts were very fair, and Illinois is doing a tremendous job putting the tournament on. We’re very comfortable,” Diaz said.
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Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas was among those roaming the Khan Tennis Complex on Thursday, taking in some of the action.
Thomas, who is coming close to the end of his second year at Illinois, says the event is a credit to the university and the communities of Urbana and Champaign.
“It’s an opportunity for all of us living in this part of the state to show off our campus and our respective communities,” Thomas said.
Illinois received the bid to host the NCAAs in 2010, prior to Thomas’ arrival on campus. He’s watched as the staff at the DIA has made efforts to make it a success.
“With us, it really starts with (tournament director) Holly Stalcup and her leadership and what’s she’s done since we received the bid three years ago,” Thomas said. “There’s probably not a day that’s gone by where Holly and her staff haven’t spent time thinking about where we are today.”