CARY — It wasn’t the fairytale ending they were hoping for.
It was a battle — a war — just as sophomore William Blumberg predicted on Saturday afternoon, but that is what the team trained for — what they love. However, the storyline on Sunday afternoon did not go in the North Carolina men's tennis team's favor.
The No. 6 Tar Heels fell, 4-0, to No. 1 Wake Forest in a grueling ACC Championship matchup. Families and other UNC athletes, including men’s basketball star Luke Maye, members of the volleyball and golf teams, and men’s soccer head coach Carlos Somoano, filled the concrete steps once again and cheered loud and proud for their team.
Whenever UNC (22-5, 11-1 ACC) fans started their classic ‘Tar Heel’ chant, the Wake Forest (25-2, 11-1 ACC) contingent did a version of its own. With each hit, the crowd and teams only seemed to get louder. Despite having an encouraging crowd behind them and fighting tooth and nail each match, the Tar Heels couldn’t pull out the four wins needed to upset the top team in the nation.
“Proud of my team,” head coach Sam Paul said. “They didn’t quit. They found a way to get back into the match. They fought, and I was really proud of them for that.”
UNC dropped the doubles point, something that hadn’t happened in its first two tournament matches of the weekend. The pair of sophomore Simon Soendergaard and first-year Mac Kiger fell 6-3 and the Demon Deacons clinched the doubles point after a 6-4 victory over junior Blaine Boyden and first-year Benjamin Sigouin.
“We just got to play a little bit better doubles,” Boyden said. “If we win the doubles point there, it’s a completely different march.”
The Tar Heels regrouped and attempted to rally in singles, knowing they needed to win four out of the six matches.
No. 30 Sigouin was ahead 4-1 in the first set and looked like he might finish his match and be the first Tar Heel on the board. Despite the Tar Heel finding his stride, something went wrong. Maybe it was the loud crowd throwing the first-year off his game or the chair umpire making questionable calls that were protested by him and his Demon Deacon opponent.
Whatever the reason may be, it threw a wrench into Sigouin’s focus and play as his counterpart battled back and won the first set 7-5. The second set picked up where the first left off. Down 2-1, a call was made that only further ignited Sigouin’s growing emotions. Caught up in the moment, he threw his racket down, resulting in a point penalty that ultimately sealed his fate of a 6-1 loss.
With Wake Forest's lead at 2-0, Kiger was the next to fall. The first-year lost 7-5, 6-3, while several of his teammates were rallying and continued to fight the war ahead of them.
Boyden, meanwhile, had lost 6-1 in the first set, but found his momentum in the second, winning 6-2. He powered to the end, holding a 5-4 lead in the third when the match ended.
“I started off a little bit slow,” Boyden said. “If I keep fighting and keep playing my game, something is going to click eventually. Something started clicking. I had the crowd behind me and I just started rolling. Honestly, it was just believing in myself and staying with it.”
Three Tar Heels fought their way to the third set while No. 3 Blumberg continued to battle his way through a grueling second set after winning the first in a tiebreak, 7-6. The sophomore was ahead 6-5, one point away from a win, just like Boyden, that would have lessened the blow of the team loss. However, the nail in the coffin came on Court Three, where Soendergaard battled.
The sophomore fell 6-2 in the first set, rallied to a 6-4 win in the second, but ultimately lost 6-3 in the third a few seconds before Boyden or Blumberg had the chance to make it on the board.
“I love our team,” Blumberg said. “Our team has more heart than any team in the country. We showed it today. We kept fighting. A lot of guys were down in some spots, and no one ever gives up on our team.”
Despite the heartbreaking loss after two blowout wins, the Tar Heels held their heads high. Sure, they were emotional, as seen through Sigouin’s point penalty, Blumberg hyping up his team and the crowd, and Boyden’s yell when he won a hard-fought point. During media interviews, the atmosphere was slightly somber as the team talked about its loss in the finals.
But, even in the midst of a disappointing loss, the Tar Heels still saw hope on the horizon as they look to the NCAA Championships, because of their heart and unwillingness to give up. After all, the team’s phrase is ‘All heart, Tar Heel.’
“This is only motivation,” Blumberg said. “I promise you that we will come out harder and stronger and faster in the NCAA Tournament if we see them again. We will come out firing in doubles and we will be running around the court with more energy than you’ve never seen in your whole life.”
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.