Geoff Macdonald had witnessed the resiliency of the Vanderbilt's women's tennis team all season. Tennessee had not.
So when the Commodores went down 3-1 against Tennessee in Knoxville in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday, Macdonald, Vanderbilt's coach, said his team’s back-against-the-wall mentality took over.
“We had three really close matches that we just fought to get and really outfought UT,” Macdonald said. “If anything, they didn’t know we were that tough. ... We fight pretty darn hard and tennis rewards fighting.”
The Commodores prevailed with three straight singles victories for a 4-3 victory and earned their first trip to the Sweet 16 in two years. Freshman Lauren Mira punched the ticket when she defeated Maria Sorbello, who was ranked 58th in the nation, in two sets.
Prior to the Tennessee match, Macdonald told assistant Aleke Tsoubanos that he would let the team shave his head if the Commodores won. On Monday, there wasn’t much left on the top.
“It is fine. I will do it any time. They are great kids,” Macdonald said. “When I make a statement or promise like that, I am not going to back out of it. Let them do it. I always wanted a haircut like this anyways.”
On Tuesday, Vanderbilt leaves for Palo Alto, Calif., where it plays North Carolina on Friday.
Reaching this point is nothing new for the Commodores, who advanced to the semifinals in 2004 and the championship match in 2001. In each case, they lost to Stanford.
This season, however, wasn’t smooth sailing for Vanderbilt (17-8, 7-4 Southeastern Conference), which finished fourth in the SEC East. In late March and early April, it lost five of seven.
“It was kind of a bump in the road but we regrouped after that really well and finished out our season really strong,” senior Keilly Ulery said. “So going into the UT match, we had a lot of momentum and confidence so that really helped.”
Added Macdonald: “We are playing in the SEC, which is murderer’s row. Our non-conference tends to be top 25 teams so we don’t play much fluff. You are going to have some ups and downs. ... They don’t go down when they lose. We really try to be stable. If you win, you feel good but you are not up in the clouds. When you lose, you don’t go down too low either.”
Ulery was in the middle of many Commodore victories this season. Four times she delivered the deciding point in three sets. The Wellington, Fla., native also kept Vanderbilt’s hopes alive in a loss against Alabama in March when she tied the match at three games apiece with a three-set victory. And on Sunday, she rallied after dropping the first set, won the last two sets by scores of 6-1 and set up Mira.
“It is pretty amazing for one player to influence this many matches, and she just plays with a lot of heart,” Macdonald said. “Give her credit. It is a wonderful way to end your collegiate career — with a lot of heroics.”
Ulery and fellow senior Rachael Dillon are hoping to extend their careers for a few more weeks.
Dillon is originally from Dublin, Ireland, and transferred two seasons ago from California-Berkeley. She met Macdonald at an 18-and-under tennis tournament where she was a volunteer and decided to transfer. Sophomore Nelly Radeva also transferred from California after last season.
“It was the best decision I have ever made,” Dillon, who plans to move back to Dublin after the season and possibly attend medical school, said. “It has just been night and day compared to Berkeley and I have been just so much happier here.”
Dillon will head back to the state where her collegiate career started and hopefully end it on a high note. Dillon will have family in attendance at Stanford as will Ulery, whose grandparents live in California.
Both believe the door is open for the Commodores to make a run and they won’t be happy with just being there.
“Anything can happen,” Dillon said. “It is all down to the heart and the fight, and we have definitely have shown that through the season. I fancy our chances.”