July 21, 2009

With the 2008-09 season fading into memory and fall practices still a month away, NCAA.com is spending two weeks in July looking back on 10 athletic programs that stood not just once, but twice (and, in three cases, thrice) atop the college sports world with national championships in '08-`09. From Messiah's magic soccer runs to Washington's scintillating softball title, this 10-part series showcases the schools that helped to define another unforgettable year of college sports.

Messiah (July 9) | Texas A&M (July 10) | Penn State (July 13) | Messiah (July 14)
Maryland (July 15) | Cortland State (July 16) | Washington (July 17) | North Carolina (July 20)

By Kevin Scheitrum

Pete Smith insists that he doesn’t want to take all the credit for his team’s seam through the D-I Men’s Tennis Tournament in the spring, he says. But, as long as you’re offering…

“I’ll take all the credit,” the Southern California men’s tennis coach joked. “The hardest thing to do in tennis is put together a team.”

Of course, he said, it’s the men on the court – those six men who opened up with a No. 8 seed in the D-I Tournament and cut a blur through the bracket, running over top-seeded Virginia en route to a national-championship win over third-seeded Ohio State on May 19 – that are the ones who deserve the recognition. But it’s Smith, who in the days leading up to the Tournament, found and stirred the right concoction of personnel to send USC to its 17th national title, bookending a 2008-09 year for Troy that started with an undefeated men’s water polo season and finished on the hard courts in College Station, Tex.

Click here for the brackets: Men's Water Polo (Printable) | Men's Tennis

You see, the Trojans’ strength in the Tournament came in its doubles squads. Going into the Tournament, its weakness – or at least a whisper of one – came in the same thing.

Up to the national tournament, the Trojans had run through a season of little failure. Posting a 19-5 record, Southern California closed the regular season with eight wins in its last nine matches. But it also closed with a loss, a 5-2 stumble against cross-town rival UCLA in the final match of the season, giving the Bruins the outright Pac-10 title.

In the match, just as in three of the Trojans’ four other losses, USC lost the doubles point – getting its lone win from its combination of Robert Farah and Steve Johnson – giving the Bruins an edge before singles play began.

“We lost in our conference tournament because of our doubles,” Smith said. “But because of that the team completely committed themselves to having great doubles, and I made sure they committed themselves to that.”

Picking a singles lineup is a lot like alphabetizing. Or, given a choice between two colors, choosing which one is yellow. Players battle it out, earning their positions by beating others.

But cobbling together working doubles pairings requires more. You need, of course, talent. Then you’ve got to have complementary styles. And personalities. It doesn’t hurt to have compatible tastes in music. Or socks.

“It’s hard to put down on paper,” Smith said. “I think you gotta have a steady guy and flashy guy; I think it’s a matter of finding the right mix and coach that ignites them.”

Smith ended up sticking with the same sextet he sent out against UCLA, but with a renewed focus on doubles play. Johnson and Farah played first doubles, followed by Abdullah Magdas and Daniel Nguyen at second and Matt Kecki and Jaak Poldma at third. In singles, the line went Farah, Johnson, Poldma, Magdas, Kecki and Nguyen.

They didn’t lose a single team doubles point the rest of the year.

With USC’s singles shredding the competition, doubles delivered on its promise: it gave the Trojans the lead heading into their forte. And once it got there, USC made sure it wouldn’t give anything up.

“People say you learn more from you losses,” Smith said. “I never believed that. You can learn from wins and losses. But it was out of our losses this year that we had our greatest victories.”

Sweeping UC Santa Barbara and Minnesota, 4-0 in the first two rounds, respectively, the Trojans’ first loss of a single team point came in the Round of 16, when they faced Pac-10 rival Stanford on May 14. For the first time since the loss to UCLA on April 17, a team pressed the Trojans.

But unlike a month ago, they held firm this time. Getting a clinching doubles win from Magdas and Nguyen before a loss from Kecki and Poldma, the Trojans watched as Farah and Johnson climbed out of a 4-1 deficit to win their match, 9-8 (4) and give USC the point. It needed it.

All but one singles match went into a third set, with Poldma taking a tough straight-set win to put the Trojans up, 2-0. Then, after Stanford took a point at No. 4 singles, Nguyen took revenge for a second-set loss to blow through the third set, 6-1, to send USC to a 3-1 lead – just before a loss at No. 2 singles brought Stanford back to 3-2.

Then came Farah. The captain and eighth-ranked singles player lost the first set, but ripped back with 6-3 and 6-4 wins in the second and third sets to send the Trojans past a team they’d split matches with, 1-1, during the regular season.

From there, nobody got close.

In the national quarters, against a Virginia team that hadn’t lost all season, Farah and Johnson’s doubles squad fell, but the next two picked them up. A sweep at singles followed. Next up and next down was Texas, as the Longhorns took another win at doubles but eventually gave up the team point as USC’s No. 1 and No. 3 teams notched wins.

Texas did get a win in singles, but the Trojans blew through the rest of the matches, earning a 4-1 win to move onto the finals, where Ohio State waited.

Where, also, Ohio State fell. The Buckeyes’ only wins came in second doubles and third singles. Everything else, as so much had in the two bracket-rattling weeks since, went for USC, giving the Trojans their 17th national championship and 110th overall for the university.

“The most important thing is you work for nine months and everything goes through these different issues, and to see everyone so joyous at the end of the season, that’s a pretty special feeling,” he said.

“I had one of my players call me when the Lakers won,” he continued. “He said ‘You know how they feel?’ I said ‘Yeah, I know exactly what those smiles mean.’”

Five months prior, the USC men’s water polo team got to experience a smile that few, in any level of any sport, get to wear.

It was a smile of unblemished triumph and a whole lot of redemption. Standing atop the podium in Palo Alto, Calif. last December, they surveyed a perfect season, a 29-0 run that started in late September and carried them from pool to pool to, finally, a 9-7 national championship game win over Stanford in the Cardinal’s home pool Dec. 7.  

They stood on the podium, victorious finally, after USC fell in the national championship game two years in a row to the Golden Bears. They stood on the podium, victorious after overcoming a 2-1 Stanford lead with a 3-0 second-quarter charge that sent the Trojans ahead for good. They stood on the podium, seniors Arjan Ligtenberg and Jovan Vranes clinging to their 100th career win and all of them clinging to one of the most hallowed seasons in the history of NCAA anything.

It was the first perfect season since 1992, and one that saw the Trojans go into overtime only three times – twice in the second day of the season, when they beat Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine in OT Sept. 29, and again against Stanford Oct. 12.

And it capped a four-year reign for the senior class that saw them win two of USC’s four national titles in program history. J.W. Krumpholz took home Tournament MVP honors, with Matt Sagehorn and Shea Buckner earning spots on the Tourney first team. Joining the squad on the second team were Ligtenberg, Vranes and freshman Peter Kurzeka.