AUGUSTA, Ga. – Knotted at four apiece with Columbus State, teammates could only watch and groan as Victor Guimaraes dropped the first set, putting Augusta State one set away from ending their season.
"I was very anxious," Guimaraes said. "I wanted to keep focus."
After sweeping all three doubles matches, the Jaguars faced a blistering Cougar rally, as CSU won four of the next five matches to set up the showdown at the No. 5 singles slot with a trip to the NCAA Spring Sports Festival – and competing as one of the final 16 teams in the nation – on the line.
"It was stressful," head coach Michael McGrath said. "The team was living and dying on every point."
On Columbus State's court and with the season on the line, the entire team was thinking of only one thing: Get. The. Win.
"Watching was an incredibly tense experience," senior Jenner Stevenson noted. "I could only think about how close we were to the final 16, and if we lost my tennis career would be over."
"(CSU) had a lot of fans come out, making the environment very intense," Max Coulumb added.
McGrath had Guimaraes make an adjustment between sets: "He wasn't getting a sniff at breaking serve, so I had him return off of the wind screen – and he got a break early in the second set."
Guimaraes rode the break, taking the second set 7-5 to set up a winner-take-all final frame. With the entire crowd honed in, he held steady, clinching the win 6-3 to put ASU through to its first NCAA Championships appearance.
"I threw down my racket and felt that the job was done, that we had finally made it," Guimaraes said.
The team 'went nuts' according to McGrath, and why not? They had accomplished a two-year goal: To show the nation what ASU Tennis was capable of on the national stage.
With three seniors starting this year, the team knew 2012 was likely their best chance to make a postseason run. Bernardo Fernandes made his count, as the No. 32-ranked player blitzed No. 23 Oliver Simonet 6-3, 6-2 for the win at No. 1 singles. This came after he and Henrique Boturao won No. 1 doubles 8-5, and Victor Cabellos and Guimaraes had upset sixth-ranked Simonet and Martin Shishkov 8-3.
Stevenson and Jan Labas came out guns blazing for a 8-3 win at No. 3 doubles for the Jags' other victories. But as CSU's singles comeback commenced, everyone could tell momentum was in the home team's favor.
"Bernardo and Henrique had great first sets, and we seemed to have control of the match early in singles," McGrath said. "Thirty minutes later, we were down on all the other courts. I knew we were in for a long day."
But McGrath credits a tough season schedule and team unity as the reasons for ASU's victory, a fact echoed by the Jag's go-to guy Fernandes.
"Despite losing to CSU during the regular season, I knew we had the potential to beat them and make the NCAA (Championships)," Fernandes said. "We were all extremely focused on our ultimate goal – and now I can be thrilled at playing in that goal in my senior season."
The Jaguars head to Louisville, Ky. for the round of 16 as part of the NCAA Spring Sports Festival. They'll take on Drury University from Springfield, Mo. out of the GLVC (Great Lakes Valley Conference) on Monday, May 14 beginning at 5:00 p.m. An interactive bracket is available on the NCAA web site, at http://www.ncaa.com/interactive-bracket/tennis-men/d2.
But they may need the time just to shake off the euphoria first.
"I have no words to describe heading to Nationals," Victor Cabellos said.
"This is the most amazing feeling of my tennis career," Boturao said.
"I can't wait to get to Louisville and hopefully keep the momentum going," Stevenson added.