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Seeking redemption, Florida set to go all the way in 2017
By Ashley Marshall
ORLANDO, FLa. -- Most teams would be happy with a Top 3 finish, but the University of Florida isn’t your normal team.
The Gators narrowly missed out on competing for a title at last year’s Tennis On Campus National Championship, losing in the semifinals to the University of North Carolina, but a new year brings fresh hope.
For club president Max Koller, 2017 is about redemption and one last shot at winning it all. After Day 1 of play, his team is right where it wants to be.
UF beat USTA Missouri Valley section champs Washington University in St. Louis, 27-13; DePaul, 30-19; and Rutgers, 30-13, in pool play. In topping Pool N, the Gators advanced to the gold bracket. They face USTA Southern winners Georgia Tech Friday morning in the gold bracket first round and, should they win, either New England winners Harvard or Midwest section champs Michigan in the quarterfinals.
Last year's finalists Auburn and UNC were in the opposite half of the draw, but neither won their pool and therefore didn't advance to the gold bracket.
“This is what we spend a lot of time all year working toward. We have a tradition of success here and we’re looking forward to continuing that this year,” said Koller, who will graduate later this year.
“I certainly look at it as a last chance to win a national championship, but my major goal is about being with the team and enjoying the relationships we’ve built. We recognize it’s our last chance, but we’re going to compete hard and leave Lake Nona knowing we put our best foot forward, win or lose.”
Koller is not the only Gator looking to end his or her collegiate career on a high note. Of the 10-player squad, five are seniors and two are grad students. Tallahassee native Paige Nicholson is the only freshman on the team, giving UF a wealth of experience to draw from.
At last year’s Nationals in Cary, N.C., the Gators raced through their pool with wins over West Virginia, Northern Colorado and Boston College by a combined games score of 85-34, and they defeated strong Michigan and Wisconsin squads in the opening two matches of the gold bracket to reach the final four.
Florida’s run came to an end at the hands of eventual runner-up UNC, 25-23. And while the Gators rebounded to beat Cornell in the third-place match, the loss to UNC left a sour taste in their mouth after an otherwise dominant season.
Determined to go even better in 2017, the Gators started the season in the best possible fashion by claiming the Tennis On Campus Fall Invitational in Hilton Head, S.C. and punching their ticket to Orlando. Even more fulfilling was that they vanquished their Nationals loss to UNC with a 27-19 victory in the semifinals and then upset defending national champions Auburn, 25-21, in the final round.
“It gave us a sense of retribution, playing UNC and then beating the defending National champions in the finals,” said Koller. “We have a lot of respect for the league and we know there is some tough competition, but we’re trying to make sure that if we have a chance to win a national championship that we’re ready to take it.”
The club has as many as 80 players attend practice and take part in community service events, and between 35-45 who have shown an interest in playing tournaments and traveling to competitions. The team practices three or four times each week and travels to up to a dozen tournaments to get as much top-level tournament competition as possible.
All 10 members of Koller’s Nationals squad are Florida natives, and their Gainesville campus is less than two hours from the USTA National Campus, which is hosting the tournament for the first time. With local pride just one of the things on the line, they’re determined to go out on top.
“Every year the University of Florida has an expectation of winning the event, but that’s not necessarily the goal,” Ormond Beach native Koller said. “We definitely have a lot of experience on the team this year, but we also had a great recruiting class of freshmen and a really diverse group of young talent that we’re all excited about. Our goal is to be prepared and capable of taking the national championship if the opportunity was there."
Florida won the TOC National Championship in 2003, long before any of the current members were in high school. But 2017 may well be the year that the title returns to the Sunshine State.