ORLANDO, Fla. -- After coming so close to a title twice in the past three years, University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill senior Connor Cooke is looking for one final push at a National Championship.
The Tar Heels finished third in 2015 after falling to Minnesota in the National semifinals. The following year, UNC dropped a heartbreaker in the championship match, leading throughout the final before falling to Auburn, 23-22, in a nail-biting climax that was decided in a super-tiebreak.
Greensboro native Cooke, one of seven seniors on the Tar Heels’ nine-player roster for the Tennis On Campus National Championship this week, will graduate from Chapel Hill with a degree in business administration later this summer.
“It means another chance to make a run for the title,” Cooke said of qualifying for Nationals in Orlando. “We made it to the championship two years ago, and it was probably the coolest experience we all have had. Playing under the lights, in front of a crowd filled with UNC fans, was awesome.”
In addition to Cooke, six other members of the UNC club tennis team competing at the USTA National Campus will be playing their final collegiate match.
On the men’s side, the team is set to graduate political science major Thomas Hughes from Lakeland, Fla., and pre-dental student Seth Pinosky from Charleston, S.C.
From the women’s roster, journalism major Caroline Jones from Richmond, Va.; business admin student Alexandra Lee from Charlotte, N.C.; history major Claire Lieberman from Fayetteville, N.C.; and bio statistics major Helen Zhang will all finish school later this year.
Hughes and Pinosky have been the Tar Heels’ men’s doubles team all four years, and Jones and Lee have been UNC’s singles players since their freshman year.
Cooke, a starter since his sophomore season, will be making his third appearance at the National Championship after not attending his freshman year. Eliana Johnson, a UNC freshman, will look to add depth to the team after switching from varsity rowing to club tennis in her second semester on campus, while sophomore Holleman Hughes and junior Ravi Tewari give the team options on the men’s side.
The Tar Heels will play Penn State, Yale and Northwestern in Pool F on Thursday. Should they top the group, they would face the winner of Pool H, which includes the defending champions from Michigan and the USTA Missouri Valley section winners from the Washington University in St. Louis.
Cooke is especially looking forward to facing Penn State this week, since it was the Nittany Lions from State College, Pa., that all but ended UNC’s hopes of a title before they began last year, defeating the Tar Heels, 28-25, at 8 a.m. on the very first day of the 2017 tournament.
Cooke would also like another shot at Auburn, the team that beat UNC for the 2016 National Championship and stopped them from winning the USTA Southern section title earlier this year. First things first, though, is a Day 1 matchup against Yale.
He doesn’t want to overlook any opponent, but he is quietly optimistic.“I think we have a really good chance,” Cooke said. “We hope to go out with a bang by finally getting that trophy that we've come so close to.
“This is the last chance to showcase how good we really are. We definitely have one more run in us. I think that would be the icing on the cake, the Cinderella story we’ve been looking for. As seniors, it would be a dream come true.”