Just like that, the Cinderella run was over.
Saturday started on a high note for the North Carolina tennis program when both the men’s and women’s teams advanced to the Final Four, the first time ever that both tennis teams of the same ACC school would compete in the NCAA semifinals.
However, the celebratory note was short-lived, as the women’s team fell 5-2 to Stanford and the No. 9 men’s team fell 4-3 to No. 4 Wake Forest.
"I want to congratulate Wake Forest – they played a great match," men's head coach Sam Paul said. "We had our chances, they just outplayed us."
The Tar Heels started out strong, grabbing the doubles point for the 23rd time this season, which, for UNC, usually sets the tone for the remainder of the match.
“Doubles was huge,” senior Blaine Boyden said. “We went into singles with a lot of confidence.”
The energy was electric. Cheers echoed throughout the USTA National Campus site as the ACC rivals battled for a spot in the NCAA Championship. For Wake Forest, it would’ve been a chance to defend its NCAA title. For UNC, it would’ve been the second NCAA finals appearance in three years.
But this time, it was a different story for North Carolina.
No. 39 Benjamin Sigouin was the first to drop, the third time this season he has lost to No. 8 Petros Chrysochos of Wake Forest. The Tar Heel finished his team season with a record of 15-6, and is headed to the round of 16 in the NCAA Singles Championship after two wins on Monday and Tuesday.
No. 110 junior Josh Peck was the next Tar Heel to falter, falling 6-4, 6-1 to No. 50 Bar Botzer. However, moments later, first-year Brian Cernoch gave UNC a spark of hope. His 6-3, 6-3 win tied the match at two.
Then, junior Simon Soendergaard fell 6-4, 6-3, giving Wake Forest the lead again. All eyes fell on Courts 1 and 5 — home of team captains William Blumberg and Boyden, respectively.
The feeling was eerily familiar, mirroring the ACC tournament semifinals when UNC fell to UVA 3-4. In that match, the outcome came down to Boyden and Blumberg. The lone senior won that day while the junior, who was battling injury, lost.
On Saturday, it was a similar tale.
Boyden stayed focused on his court, not looking at the scoreboard at all, and tried to live in the moment. It worked, as the lone senior won 6-2, 6-3, tying the score at three while giving hope to the UNC fan base. Eyes shifted over to Court 1, where No. 19 Blumberg fought against No. 11 Borna Gojo in the third set. The two were tied 2-2.
Gojo started pulling ahead, winning on 40-40 points.
Blumberg served to stay in the match. On another 40-40 point, Blumberg forehanded the ball, narrowing Gojo’s lead.
Then, 3-5, 40-40.
Silence fell over the campus site. Tar Heels and Demon Deacons bent over leaning on their knees, some holding their breaths.
Game, set, match.
Wake Forest players erupted in cheers and stormed the courts, putting an end to UNC’s impressive run.
The Tar Heels had beaten Georgia during a regional match in the round of 32, flown out to California to top No. 8 USC in the Sweet Sixteen, and pulled off a 4-1 upset over No. 1 Ohio State in the Elite Eight.
“What a ride we’ve had the last two weeks,” Paul said.
There are plenty of positives for the team to focus on, like how Sigouin, who was named Most Improved in the Strength & Conditioning awards, and Blumberg both advanced to the round of 16 in the NCAA singles tournament on Tuesday, or how the No. 13 duo of Boyden and Blumberg qualified for the NCAA doubles tournament.
But there’s still a wave of sadness hitting the Tar Heels.
This was the last team match for their lone senior Boyden, who made a lasting mark on the program.
“He’s in the individual tournament, but he’s been one of the best players we’ve ever had in representing our university,” Paul said. “Great academically, great leader, tremendous work ethic. I feel bad for him that he won’t have this opportunity again, but he’s had an incredible career. The sad thing is that it has to end sometime, right?”
The graduate was honored on Monday with the Iron Ram award for the second time in his career, which goes to the top performer in strength and conditioning for the team. Once the doubles tournament is over, he will move to Atlanta to start work in investment banking, ending his tennis career.
“I’m just really proud of each and every guy, how much they grew throughout the year and how much we grew as a team,” Boyden said. “Our goal before the tournament was to play the tournament with no regrets and leave it all on the court, and I think we did that.”
“I’m extremely proud of each guy in that locker room and I wish them nothing but the best for next year. I know Carolina tennis is in great hands.”
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