Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - May 24, 2013

NCAA team title provides redemption for Stanford women

After struggling with injuries, Cardinal proves it was a pretty good team all along

by Rick Eymer

There was no reason to believe Stanford would be a serious contender for the NCAA women's tennis crown, not after losing to rival California on the final day of the regular season.

The Cardinal was seeded 12th, just barely eligible to host one of the 16 sites for the first two rounds of the tournament. Regular-season losses to USC, Florida and St. Mary's were also on its ledger and even Stanford coach Lele Forood acknowledged the loss to the Gaels, who also made the field of 64, hurt its seeding.

Stanford's No. 1 singles player Nicole Gibbs, who took on a heavy pro circuit schedule during the fall, did not even try to compete in the Pac-12 championship. She needed some time off.

Forood never wandered too far away from her "we're still a pretty good team" statement made after the Cardinal won its first two NCAA matches, each by a 4-0 score, over Miami of Ohio and Rice.

Mention the loss of All-American Mallory Burdette to the professional ranks on the eve of the regular season, or question the 6-1 loss to the Trojans and Forood appears to mentally shrug and maintain her mantra.

Her players, recruited to Stanford for leadership qualities as much as talent, rewarded Forood's faith in them by choosing the NCAA team tournament to play their best tennis and advancing to the championship match.

Texas A&M, Stanford's opponent in the national finale, was enjoying a magical season of its own. The third-ranked Aggies never got past the Round of 16 before this year. Their season, however, ended short of their goal. Stanford's Cinderella story was that much better.

For junior Kristie Ahn, the long road back to health reached its logical conclusion. She recorded the clinching point in Stanford's 4-3 victory over Texas A&M on Tuesday in Urbana, Ill., providing the Cardinal its 17th NCAA title in perhaps the most astonishing fashion of all.

"It's a great feeling. This has been a great team for a long time," Forood said. "A lot of these people are juniors and seniors who have contributed heavily to the win. For Kristie Ahn to clinch is just poetic justice because she's been the missing player for the last two years (due to injuries) at the end of the season, and we weren't able to get it done without her, and when we got her back, we got it done."

Not able to participate in the NCAA tournament the past two years and playing just three matches last year, Ahn achieved the pinnacle of college tennis on Tuesday night.

"Honestly, it's such a cliché, but words really can't explain this one," Ahn said. "From my freshman year, I've wanted this moment, and I've been bugged by injuries, and to clinch makes it that much better. When we played USC in the Round of 16, I had a shot. I could have clinched, and I didn't get that and I was pretty upset."

Ahn dropped the second set and was down 0-2 before reeling off six successive games. She was mobbed within moments of the final point.

"Last night, I was thinking, 'How sick would it be if I could clinch tomorrow?' And when I got to 2-2 in the third set, I was smiling," Ahn said. "I was having the best time of my life because I was thinking about how absurd it was that it was coming down to me."

The unexpected title assures that Stanford's record of winning at least one NCAA title remains intact after 37 years.

"Watching Krista (Hardebeck) last night was so inspiring, and I kind of drew from that," Ahn said of the Cardinal freshman who clinched a 4-3 upset win over No. 1 Florida in the semifinals. "I can't tell you the amount of good energy I felt, how absurd that it was coming down to a 4-2, 4-3 match in the finals, it's crazy. And I started smiling uncontrollably. Life does not get more absurdly wonderful than this."

This latest NCAA title is the 104th for Stanford, the lowest seeded team to win the title since UCLA in 2007. Stanford has won 72 titles since 1990, more than any other college during that span.

The national crown was the Cardinal's 18th overall in women's tennis, including one in the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW). For the Pac-12, it was national title No. 457.

Forood now has a remarkable 330-23 overall record, with seven NCAA titles to her credit.

Frankie Brennan, whose father Frank won 10 tennis titles as Stanford's coach, has been with Forood during her tenure as an assistant coach.

Three of Stanford's final four matches in the tournament went 4-3, and the 4-1 win over Georgia is misleading, as the Bulldogs were in every match.

Each of the three matches that went the distance were clinched by a different player: Ellen Tsay, Hardebeck and Ahn. Tsay also clinched the first-round win and senior Natalie Dillon clinched the second-round win.

Against the Trojans, Gibbs and Tsay each reversed decisions against their opponents and the doubles team of Ahn and Gibbs knocked off USC's top-ranked doubles team, 9-8 (2), to clinch what turned out to be a crucial match.

Against the Gators, Ahn and Hardebeck each reversed losses from earlier in the season and Gibbs beat top-ranked Lauren Embree, 6-0, 6-1.

Gibbs also put on a display in her match against Texas A&M's Cristine Sanchez that set the tone for the rest of the singles players.

After senior Stacey Tan, who reached the final of the 2011 NCAA singles tournament, gave the Cardinal a 2-0 lead, Gibbs rebounded from losing her first eight games to win 12 straight and earn a 0-6, 6-2, 6-0 victory, putting Stanford ahead 3-0.

It was the first time in 120 college matches that Gibbs lost the first set by a shutout.

"I've had a leadership role on this team, and it's really hard to see your No. 1 player go down 6-0, 6-0. We saw that yesterday with Florida, when I was lucky enough to rattle a couple off against Lauren Embree," Gibbs said. "That's a tough blow to come back from, so I think just sitting there thinking about the impact I was having on my team from losing just made me dig a little bit deeper, get through being tired, being exhausted from all the energy we've been putting into this week as captains, and just push through. Evidently it worked. It was the weirdest match I've ever played in my life, but I'll take it."

Forood was suffering right along with Gibbs through the early part of the match.

"I felt bad for Nicole early on," she said. "I wanted her to find a way to get back in the match. Early in the second set, she said, 'I have to win this match. I have to do things differently.' And so it was her urgency and I think she found a little more energy. I think she felt a little sluggish in her legs early in the match and her opponent was playing beautifully, extremely well. But she found some energy, was able to plug away, get the momentum in her favor and things got rolling for her after that."

Freshman Anna Mamalat downed Tsay, 6-1, 7-5, to give the Aggies their first point and Nazari Urbina topped Hardebeck, 6-3, 7-6 (7-3) for the second point.

Hardebeck, with Dillon, gave Stanford its first point of the match at No. 3 doubles. The Cardinal duo won its match, 8-5, to secure the point.

Gibbs, who is a career 24-1 in the month of May, was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, while Ahn and Tan also were named as singles players. The doubles teams of Tan and Tsay and Hardebeck and Dillon were also selected for recognition on the all-tournament team.

"This means so much more to me than any of the individual titles last year," said Gibbs, who also won the NCAA doubles title with Burdette. "Obviously it's awesome to have all three under my belt, but this was the one I wanted. I came back to school after having such a good year to chase after this title, and having it just means so, so much. It's everything I ever could have wanted. I'm so happy I got it."

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