By Ashley Marshall
ORLANDO, Fla. -- With a national title hanging on the outcome of one set of tennis, University of Michigan captain Alex Gruskin turned to his key weapons one last time.
And like it has done so many times this year, Gruskin's final mixed doubles pairing of Laura Ucrós Téllez and Max Rothman delivered in the clutch to seal a memorable victory and bring the trophy home for Big Blue.
Michigan defeated the University of California, Irvine, in the final of the 2017 Tennis On Campus National Championship, 24-20, with the Wolverines’ mixed team overcoming a late deficit to deliver the victory. It was Michigan’s first TOC Nationals title.
"There are a lot of people back home and we've been working four years for this, so to bring this home for them as a senior, I couldn't be happier," Gruskin said. "We call [Ucrós Téllez and Rothman] the nuclear option because when they go in, they're going to get the job done. For them to get the job done, we couldn't be happier. It's so fun to watch and we're just glad we could support them through it.
"[UC Irvine is] as classy of a team as you'll find here, and to have the opportunity to play them in front of all of these fans is a once-in-a-lifetime thing."
The championship caps a perfect three days in central Florida for the Wolverines, who cruised through pool play and never trailed in any of their first three gold bracket knockout matches.
They came up against their toughest test Saturday evening in a dogged UC Irvine club, which trailed for most of the final before holding a one-game lead going into the last set of the tournament.
"To go down the way we did was completely fine," UC Irvine captain Tommy Luu said. "They just came out a lot stronger. We missed some crucial points, but it's OK. We tried to fight and tried to keep in it, but at the end we fell short.
"This is the furthest we've ever gone in this tournament, and especially to be in the final means so much to us. I'm extremely proud of my team to compete so closely with the national champions for this year."
Michigan's victory gives the USTA Midwest section its first TOC national champion and slows the recent dominance of California teams, which have won five of the past eight titles.
On Saturday, the Wolverines started off strong behind a 6-2 women's doubles win for junior Kerry Hu and former varsity standout Ucrós Téllez over UC Irvine senior Melissa Huang and freshman Kaitlyn Nguyen.
Hu then increased Michigan's lead in the women's singles, saving five match points and rallying from 5-2 down to beat sophomore Yoshino Takashimizu, 6-5, in a tiebreak.
"For her to come back from 5-2 down ... that's incredible," Gruskin said. "That's all you can ask from your junior captain in the last match on the job. That's all we can hope for. She delivered. It was a lucky day when Kerry Hu chose to go to Michigan."
The Anteaters cut into the deficit with Gabriel Cupino and captain Tommy Luu's 6-2 men's doubles triumph over Michigan's Rothman and Gruskin, and the California team creeped out in front thanks to freshman Andy Francis' 6-4 victory over Koushik Kondapi.
That set the stage for the final mixed doubles match of the competition, with UCI Irvine leading, 19-18. But the duo of Ucrós Téllez and Rothman quickly turned that around and raced into a 4-0 advantage over Cupino and Takashimizu, dropping just six points.
Cupino got UC Irvine on the board in the fifth game to cut the overall Wolverines lead to 22-20, but Michigan held at love to move one game away, then broke for the third time in the set to set off the celebration.
"I don't even remember match point," Rothman said. "Laura hit the return and I knew I had to jump on it. I hadn't done it in a couple games. I put the poach kind of short and that was that. I just had to be aggressive and it paid off."
The victory puts a cap on Ucrós Téllez's collegiate tennis career, which saw her begin as a member of the varsity team before a right knee injury three years ago almost ended her career.
The business major from Bogota, Colombia, only recently joined the club tennis team, but she will graduate in 11 days with a national title and the memories to match.
"I think it's mind blowing," she said. "A couple months I never imagined that I would be playing tennis again. It was a great opportunity and I'm very, very grateful for letting me be a part of it. I'm extremely happy. I'm back.
"I just knew that we had to win. It was a great feeling. I can't remember a single point of that last doubles match, I was just in the zone. I haven't felt this way since before I got my injury in 2013."
USTA Tennis On Campus national coordinator Newlyn Wing described the tournament as amazing and thanked partners NIRSA and World TeamTennis.
"All the players loved the facility and they had a great time," he said. "It was truly Tennis On Campus meets National Campus. It was the perfect blend of collegiate club tennis and this amazing facility.
"Kudos to Michigan, they really pulled through. And UC Irvine kept it tight until the very end but even in defeat they were the most gracious team. We hope to see them again next year because their sportsmanship defined what Tennis On Campus is."
Earlier in the week, Michigan topped Pool J with wins over first-timers Binghamton, New Mexico and Yale by a combined tally of 89-26, then defeated Harvard, 26-19; Georgia Tech, 30-7; and UCLA, 25-18, to reach the final.
They rarely trailed in the championship match, but when they did fall behind late they came together to find a way to win. For Ucrós Téllez, that's the most important piece of the success.
"I feel like we're a a family," she said. "I've known these people for a couple months and I love them to death. They're awesome. Every single time I need someone, they're there for me. When someone's playing, we're all playing. I would never have imagined that I was here, but I'm very happy that I'm here with this team."
The University of Michigan team is made up of seniors Gruskin and Ucrós Téllez, juniors Hu and Rothman, sophomore Kevin Rothstein and freshmen Koushik Kondapi and Chelsea Yu.
UC Irvine's team consists of senior Huang, juniors Cupino, Winston Ha Ngo, Jennifer Leong, Luu, Kiana Phaychanpheng and Yue Ren (Nick) Wang, sophomore Takashimizu and freshmen Francis and Nguyen.