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Auburn dethrones UC Berkeley in quarterfinal upset

Auburn  

By Ashley Marshall

It took three years and a dogged comeback, but the champs have finally been dethroned.

Auburn University defeated the University of California – Berkeley, 23-17, in the quarterfinals of the 2016 Tennis On Campus National Championship on Friday, guaranteeing the Alabama-based school’s highest-ever finish at the tournament. But the scoreline only tells half the story.

With the men’s and women’s doubles in the books and a place in the Tennis On Campus semifinals on the line, Auburn’s hopes of winning a national title hung by a thread. Not only did it trail, 12-5, but the team they were chasing was perennial powerhouse and two-time defending champions UC Berkeley, owners of an 18-match win streak at coed club tennis’ marquee tournament.

Needing strong performances in the two singles matches, the Tigers turned to senior Kitchen, a former two-year varsity player who was making her first appearance at Cary Tennis Park in North Carolina.

Kitchen, a native of Hilton Head Island in neighboring South Carolina, defeated Sarah Dessouki, 6-1, and Auburn junior Mitchell Vegas followed with a 6-3 win over Manpreet Tiwana. Those victories put Auburn ahead, 17-16, with the outcome of the tie riding on the mixed doubles.

Kitchen and Vegas raced out to a 4-0 lead and never looked back, running out to a convincing 6-1 triumph and upsetting the champs, who last experienced defeat in a Nationals match in 2013.

“It feels great,” said Ashley Kitchen, who secured wins in her women’s singles and tie-clinching mixed doubles. “They’re a very tough team, but we played very well today. You have to play them tough, but I was pretty confident because we have a strong team. This is my first time at Nationals and I’m really excited and I’m happy to be here.”

“It’s just inexpiable,” said Vegas, who said the final score was both a reflection of the talent on the Tigers roster and its collective strength in the face of adversity. "We’ve been working all year. We knew we’d have the chance to play them. We see them in the final every year, but we knew we’d have a chance and we executed our game plan.

“Playing the two-time National Champions in the quarters is not a good draw, but we knew we’d have to beat the best if we want to win it. Everyone contributed and every single game matters. We’ll have a small celebration, but we’ll be ready for tomorrow.”

Auburn’s strong performance against Berkeley comes on the back of a perfect 3-0 record in pool play on Thursday. The Tigers defeated the University of Illinois – Chicago, 30-10, and dropped just seven games in a 30-7 rout of North Dakota State University. Auburn was pushed in its third round-robin match before prevailing over UC Davis, 29-17, to top the group and advance to the gold bracket.

On Friday, Auburn defeated Dartmouth College, 29-12, to book a showdown with Berkeley, which had outlasted the University of Miami, 25-20, earlier in the morning.

“It was really exciting and we did really well,” senior captain Christian Lyerly, 22, said of his team’s upset of Berkeley. “They were the team to beat and we came out and did it. It was a really good feeling. Just knowing they had won the past two in a row, it gave us extra motivation to get through the match and we knew we had a good chance because we’ve been playing well throughout the tournament.”

Lyerly, an exercise science major from Birmingham, Ala., attributed the success to team chemistry. “Everyone gets along and we’re all friends on and off the court. We all hang out outside of practice and I think it’s been really crucial to have that friendship outside as well.”

Adding a player of Kitchen’s caliber certainly didn’t hurt the team, either. And Kitchen, undefeated in Tennis On Campus matches this year, will likely be called on again when the Tigers meet Cornell for a spot in the final.

After two years of playing on the Division I Auburn University women’s tennis team, Kitchen decided she wanted to devote less time to her demanding tennis schedule, and more time on her academics. So last spring, she decided to quit the varsity team and made the jump to the USTA Tennis On Campus team.

“Tennis was taking too much of my time and I wanted to slow down and enjoy college,” Kitchen said. “I love tennis, especially playing mixed doubles. So it’s been a great decision.”

The Tigers qualified for Nationals by winning the USTA Southern section’s Tennis On Campus championship and will now play USTA Eastern section champions Cornell University in Saturday’s semifinal. The winner will meet either the University of North Carolina or the University of Florida in the National Championship match.