URBANA — As Michelle Dasso surveyed the overflow crowd from her chair on the floor of Atkins Tennis Center on Saturday afternoon, two thoughts occurred to the Illinois women’s tennis coach.
One was to preserve this rare moment for posterity.
“It was amazing,” Dasso said. “It was so special. I kept thinking, I hope we get pictures of this.”
Dasso’s other thought — her hope, really — was to make that crowd a third member of the Illini doubles team that had drawn so many of them to the UI’s indoor tennis facility on this rainy spring day. A total of 332 paid to get in, but with the addition of complimentary passes as well as support staff and volunteers, the actual number on hand was far larger.
And most of the eyes were on Illini senior Rachael White and sophomore Melissa Kopinski. Try as they might, however, the Illini duo never could capitalize on a potentially electric homecourt atmosphere at the NCAA Championships. The No. 2 doubles team in the nation simply wouldn’t let them.
“We never got the crowd into it because we didn’t give them a chance to,” Dasso said after the Southern California tandem of Kaitlyn Christian and Sabrina Santamaria rolled to a 6-2, 6-0 victory in the quarterfinals of the NCAA doubles championships. “Their doubles pair have a way of making you look bad.”
While the Trojans moved on to today’s semifinals — which will be played at Khan Outdoor Tennis Complex if the weather cooperates — Illinois’ 22nd-ranked pair saw the deepest doubles run in program history at an NCAA Championships come to an end.
White and Kopinski accomplished plenty during a 28-13 season, including becoming just the second and third All-Americans in Illinois women’s tennis history.
“I grabbed the girls right after the match and told them, ‘Hold your heads high. Think about how much you accomplished. You girls really set the standard here,’ ” Dasso said.
What Kopinski and White could not accomplish, however, was extending their season at least one more day against a USC duo that presented challenges they could not overcome.
Whether it was Santamaria belting seeing-eye shots from the baseline or Christian working her magic with the ball at the net, Illinois rarely had an answer for what the Trojans threw at them.
“The both play different games, but they’re great at what they do,” White said. “I think they both just place the ball really well. They pick a spot and they can hit it there.”
It didn’t help, of course, that the Illini got off to a shaky start and rarely displayed the level of play that had brought them to this point in the tournament.
“Just kind of a nightmare,” Kopinski said.
With the balcony area packed and standing-room only around the floor bleachers, this was by far the largest home crowd to see the Illini women play this season — and perhaps in any season.
White and Kopinski definitely noticed, and that might have been a factor in their play, too.
Dasso thought so.
“We were definitely shell-shocked today,” the UI coach said. “We were a little bit of a deer in the highlight.”
Said Kopinski: “I never expected it to be that big of a crowd, to be honest. And then everyone’s cheering for Illinois.”
The reaction might have been different — perhaps a little less overwhelming — had it not rained and allowed Saturday’s matches to be played outdoors.
“It’s definitely more enclosed and louder,” White said. “Yeah, it’s a totally different atmosphere (inside).”
Or maybe it would have made no difference. There is, after all, a reason that Christian and Santamaria have won back-to-back doubles titles at the ITA National Indoor Championships and will take a near-perfect 35-1 record into today’s national outdoor semifinals. Two of those victories have come at the expense of Kopinski and White, who lost to the Trojan duo last October when Santamaria and Christian also captured the doubles crown at the Riviera/ITA All-American Championship.
“They’re a great team,” Dasso said. “Even though we have a game plan, they have a tendency to make you want to hit another way. Make you go away from your plan. We tried executing it. Things didn’t go our way.”