ATHENS, Ga. - For the second consecutive year Lauren Embree (Marco Island, Fla.) was involved in the clinching decision in the NCAA Women's Tennis Championships final and for the second consecutive season the Gator All-American delivered in the clutch. On Tuesday, Embree defeated McCall Jones, 6-4, 6-0, and helped Florida defeat top-seeded UCLA, 4-0, at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex.
While the 2012 national title match wasn't as drama-filled as Florida's 2011 championship bout when Embree rallied from a 4-0 third-set deficit to complete the win over top-seeded Stanford, 4-3, on the Cardinal's home court, the Gators relied on their doubles prowess each time along the six-match run to spot them the early lead and were able to finish off their opponents with impressive play on the singles courts.
"I really think all those grass workouts, all those wind-sprints, all those Gator mountains, all those things that are painful certainly paid off for the Florida Gators today because without them we could not have rebounded from yesterday's humongous battle against Duke (a four hour and 44 minute, 4-3 win in the semifinals) and be as fresh as we were today," said UF head coach Roland Thornqvist, who has guided the Gators to three national championships in his 11 seasons. "I thought we were absolutely fabulous and outstanding from start to finish today. All three courts in doubles, I thought we were much better. In singles, what can you say. I thought we executed great on every court."
Florida, which entered the championship with a 25-0 record this year when winning the doubles point, again captured the important doubles point as the top-ranked team of Sofie Oyen (Leopoldsburg, Belgium) and Allie Will (Boca Raton, Fla.) ripped off the first six games of the eight-game pro-set en route to an 8-2 victory against sixth-ranked Robin Anderson and Skyler Morton on court one. The Gator pair of Alexandra Cercone (Seminole, Fla.) and Caroline Hitimana (Waterloo, Belgium) then provided the clinching doubles-point victory with an 8-5 decision against McCall Jones and Carlilng Seguso on court three.
Cercone and Hitimana lost their serve early, but got the match back on serve in the sixth game with a break before Hitimana held at love for 4-3. Both teams held on the next four games, before the Gators broke at love to take a 7-5 lead and Cercone served up an ace on match point to earn the victory. Individually, Hitimana improved to 12-1 all-time in NCAA doubles dual matches. In her overall career, Hitimana is a clutch 16-1 in doubles-point clinching matches.
The match on court two was on-serve, with the Embree and Joanna Mather (Duluth, Ga.) receiving up 6-5 when play was halted.
"It's a double-edge sword because you don't want to jump for joy in the locker room afterwards before singles and find yourself in a battle 30 minutes later," Thornqvist said. "It's obviously great. It's better to win it than to lose it, but as soon as you win it you sort of want to forget about it. This team is so physical it's so difficult to win four singles matches against us and I think that does give us a little bit of a confidence boost and an edge that when we start. Even though it's just one more match to win, it's a big hurdle to overcome. (winning) Four versus three matches against us in singles, I think we felt really good after the doubles point."
Cercone was the first to finish her singles match, as she posted a 6-2, 6-0 win in one hour and nine minutes against Chanelle Van Nguyen and gave Florida a 2-0 lead. The Gator sophomore, who improved to a perfect 9-0 in NCAA singles dual matches, won the final nine games of the match, including the last three at love.
"I was a little bit concerned about how I would come out today after my match yesterday (that lasted three hours and 14 minutes)," Cercone shared. "I'm really happy that I played efficient tennis today. Obviously, it helps out the rest of the girls, so I'm feeling good.
"I'll say I play my best tennis and I compete the hardest in the NCAAs," continued Cercone, who earned a spot on the NCAA All-Tournament Team for the second consecutive year. "There's something about the atmosphere here (at the NCAA Championships) with the people and the support that goes into this event that brings the best out of me."
Oyen completed her victory seven minutes later, earning a 6-3, 6-2 win against Skylar Morton on court four and giving Florida a 3-0 lead. The Gator sophomore fell behind 3-0 in the first set, down two breaks, before beginning her comeback, as she won five straight games to take the first set. Oyen and Morton traded breaks early in the second set, before Oyen broke in the fifth game and held for a 4-2 lead. She then battled from triple game-point to earn yet another break and served out the eighth game with an ace. Oyen finished the dual match season with a team-best 22 wins in 23 matches, with four of those victories coming in NCAA Championships action.
That set the clinching stage for Embree, who was named the NCAA Championships Most Outstanding Player for the second consecutive season and earned a spot on the NCAA All-Tournament Team.
Embree found herself in a tight first set against Jones, earned a break in the third game for a 2-1 lead and that's all she would need as the remainder of the frame was on-serve.
"In the beginning I felt a little nervous but I just wanted not to get down a break like I've doing the last couple of matches," shared Embree, who won her 18th consecutive singles match. "I wanted to stay really focused and into the match from the beginning. As soon as I won that first set I knew that I could start playing relaxed and play a little better and that's what I did."
The Gator junior the broke Jones at love to open the second and raced out to take a 5-0 lead before Jones needed medical attention. The time delay didn't phase Embree, who served out for the victory and helped Florida win the sixth national championship in program history.
"There was a moment when I was up a set and 2-0 and Sofie had just won and I was thinking to myself that I might be the next to finish," Embree shared. "Jo (Mather) was about to spilt (sets) and Allie (Will) was battling, Olivia (Janowicz) was in her first set. So there was a moment (when she thought she might be the clinching match). I just tried to stay really focused on what I was doing.
"I had a little bit of nerves at a set and 4-0, just because I was thinking just get this game because I didn't want anything to happen the opposite of what happened last year," said Embree, flashing back to last year's NCAA Final when she rallied from a 4-0 deficit in the third set against Stanford's Mallory Burdette to clinch the team win. "As soon as I got that game I was relaxed. I was also relaxed at 3-0, but more relaxed at 5-0 knowing that I had that game.
"I'm glad this one wasn't as dramatic as last year, I just happened to be the last one who had a chance to clinch it," Embree shared. "The bottom of the lineup, I was looking at the scoreboard, and they doing awesome down there. It feels amazing to clinch it, but without our one and three doubles teams we may not have won the doubles point. It's a team effort and I'm so proud of them for being so tough.
"It is harder to win the second one," said Embree of capturing the second straight national championship. "We've had our struggles and it hasn't been easy. Our goal from the beginning was to try to get back into this position and give us the best chance we had to win. I'm just proud of our team for fighting and for working hard every day in practice and this second one (NCAA title) is just as good as the first."
The win improved Embree's record to a perfect 12-0 all-time in NCAA singles dual matches.
"I think it's wanting to win so badly for everybody else," shared Embree about her postseason record. "Like Alex said, it's hard to play your best tennis here. The atmosphere is great. The fans we have are amazing. Our team supporting each other on each court, it's difficult not to play well on this stage."
Mather, the lone senior on the Gator roster, had taken a 1-0 lead in the third set of her match against Pamela Montez when Embree secured the team victory and her match was halted.
The Gator team captain each of the last two years, Mather helped Florida to a 103-15 overall record during her four-year tenure, including an 87-4 mark during her final three seasons that included three Southeastern Conference regular-season and tournament championships, as well as a pair of NCAA titles and one national runner-up finish.
"Amazing," Mather stated of her time as a Gator. "Every year has had different challenges and different moments that I will never forget. This group of girls, they are family to me. It's been amazing. This has been the best four years of my life. I'm really sad it's over but I can't imagine it ending in a better way.
"My freshman year, we so different because we were so happy just to get into the NCAA round of 16. Every win that year was such a big deal," Mather shared. "It definitely feels great to be competing for a national championship, as well. I wouldn't trade any of these four years for anything."
Her impact was not lost on Thornqvist when asked if the Gators can repeat next year.
"We're going to have a huge hole to fill in Joanna Mather," Thornqvist praised. "She's been our leader for three years and has been our safety blanket and tremendous security for this team. We're going to have to rely on several people to fill that void. The journey towards next year's NCAA Championships will begin with that in the fall."
With four singles matches still in play before Embree clinched the victory, Thornqvist admitted he was anxious watching the scoreboard.
"When Sofie won to put us up 3-0, I'm standing behind the courts at four and five, with nobody playing, not wanting to go over to court three to make her nervous. Not wanting to go to court six to be too far away from one, two and three. So those last 10 minutes were grueling," Thornqvist said.
"I was watching courts four, five and six and that was as good as I've seen us play in a long time. It certainly came at a great time," Thornqvist continued. "I'm really proud of this group. We discovered this year that without a doubt it's much more difficult to repeat than it is to do it the first time. There are some inherent challenges you have to deal with in the beginning of the year and we had to go through some growing pains as defending national champions, but throughout the spring these guys showed what kind of will, what kind of determination they have. They were will to work through it and start over to build up the team from scratch and what you saw today was the culmination of all of that."
Florida becomes only the second team in NCAA Women's Tennis history to earn back-to-back national championships.
For the Gators, the 2012 title was the sixth for the program, which also hoisted the trophy in 1992, 1996, 1998, 2003 and 2011.
"Sometimes as the defending national champion you want to continue where you left off and I think that's really dangerous," Thornqvist explained of the journey to repeat. "Last year we won matches 6-4, 6-4. This year we had to win that same match 6-2, 6-2 or we had not improved from last year. You can sometimes get into that little pit there when it's dangerous to compare the two years. You have to start with a clean slate and build the pyramid from the bottom up again and it takes a lot of work. At first we struggled with it but as the year progressed we got better and better."
Florida (27-1), which finished the season winning its 22nd consecutive match, earned the program's eighth all-time win against a No. 1-ranked team, including the second in an NCAA final, as the top-ranked Bruins ended its year with a 26-3 record.
The tennis team's NCAA title is the second national championship for the Gator athletics program this year, as Florida won the 2012 Men's Indoor Track & Field Championships on March 10 in Nampa, Idaho. Overall, Florida has won 28 national team championships.
2012 NCAA Women’s Tennis Championships Final
Dan Magill Tennis Complex * Athens, Ga.
No. 1 UCLA vs. No. 2 Florida
Doubles (1, 3*)
1. Sofie Oyen/Allie Will (1), d. Robin Anderson/Skyler Morton (6), UCLA, 8-2
2. Lauren Embree/Joanna Mather (22), UF led Courtney Dolehide/Pamela Montez (9), UCLA, 6-5 DNF
3. Alexandra Cercone/Caroline Hitimana, UF d. McCall Jones/Carlilng Seguso, UCLA, 8-5
Singles (Order of finish: 5, 4, 2)
1. Allie Will (1), UF vs. Robin Anderson (4), UCLA DNF
2. Lauren Embree (9), UF vs. McCall Jones (98), UCLA 6-4, 6-0
3. Joanna Mather (21), UF vs. Pamela Montez (73), UCLA DNF
4. Sofie Oyen (61), UF vs. Skylar Morton (124), UCLA 6-3, 6-2 DNF
5. Alexandra Cercone (79), UF vs. Chanelle Van Nguyen (119), UCLA, 6-2, 6-0
6. Olivia Janowicz, UF vs. Carlilng Seguso, UCLA DNF