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Tarheels, Tigers to play for National Championship

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By Ashley Marshall

Sixty-four talented teams arrived at the 2016 Tennis On Campus National Championship with dreams of taking a title back to their campus. Now, that field has been narrowed down to the best two club tennis teams in the nation.

The University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill and Auburn University will meet under the lights of Cary Tennis Park in Cary, N.C., Saturday night to determine whether hometown favorites UNC can bring home its first national championship in 16 years or whether the first-time finalist Tigers will be standing alone at the top of the college club tennis mountain.

Auburn booked its place in the final with a 27-20 victory over Cornell University earlier Saturday morning. UNC, champions the first two times the tournament was held, in 2000 and 2001, ensured it would better its third-place finish from 12 months ago with a 25-23 nail-biting win over the University of Florida in the second semifinal.

“It feels amazing, amazing,” Auburn junior Mitchell Vegas said. “Earlier this week, we never even thought about this. We just wanted to do our best and now we’re one win away. It’s crazy. These guys are like my best friends back home and we do everything together. We’re like family, so we’ll remember this forever.”

UNC and Auburn have met twice this year, with Auburn emerging victorious in the semifinals of a tournament at University of Tennessee and again in the final of the USTA Southern section championship.

“This is my last year with UNC and I can say it means the worlds to me,” Tar Heels senior captain Roxanne Henshall said. “I love this team, I love my school and it’s the highest honor to be competing for a national championship. We played Auburn a lot in our section, so we know them and we know their game, so we have to be on our top game.”

On Saturday, Cornell held a slender 10-9 advantage after Hannah Stahl and Lauren Frazier beat Auburn’s women’s double team of Hannah Shoener and Alex Hall, 6-3, and Nathan Jacobson and Lawrence Rand earned four games in a 6-4 loss to Will McWhirt and Marshall Brown.

Tigers senior Ashley Kitchen tied the overall score with a 6-5 win over Angel Deng in women’s singles before Vegas beat Jacob Cooper, 6-3, in men’s singles to give the Tigers a 21-18 edge going into the final match. Vegas and Kitchen, undefeated in both singles and mixed doubles this year, raced out to a 4-0 advantage and wrapped up a 6-2 win over Jacobson and Frazier to punch Auburn’s ticket to the final.

“This means a lot, I’m really excited,” Kitchen, a senior, said after the win. “It was a tough match and we knew we had to fight and we knew it was going to be a battle. We knew we had to keep fighting for every point. UNC are a tough team and now we just have come out and be aggressive and play with confidence and get the job done.”

In the other semifinal, things were even closer. UNC and Florida were tied at 8-8 after the men’s and women’s doubles, with UNC’s Roxanne Henshall and Sarah French defeating Natalie Boruk and Anna Rachman, 6-2, and Florida’s pairing of Joseph Rudy and Paul Johnson toppling Nelson Hughes and Seth Pinosky by the same score.

The teams remained deadlocked through the two singles matches, as UNC’s Alexandra Lee beat Boruk and Rudy edged past UNC sophomore Connor Cooke, each 6-5.

With everything on the line in mixed doubles, Henshall and graduate student Phil Mayer rallied from an early break down to beat Johnson and Rachman, 6-4, to send the Tar Heels to the championship match.

“Our teammates did a great job of putting us in this spot,” said Mayer, who was on last years’ team that fell to eventual runner-up Minnesota at the semifinal stage. “We went to the mixed even and that’s all you can ask for. Roxanne and I know we can hang with anybody and we knew we’d be ready. We’re a young team but we have a lot of Nationals experience.

“It’s going to be a few points here and there. Auburn is a really good team. They’re deep all the way though, but we have to come out and play the way we always do.”