Notre Dame drops four singles matches, denied repeat
By RACHEL BIBER
CORAL GABLES, Fla.
A battle of epic proportions was fought out in the heat of the final in the men's tennis Big East championships in Coral Gables, Fla. But the path to victory was only to be mapped for the top-seeded and 21st-ranked Miami Hurricanes, who took out the 29th-ranked Irish in heart-wrenching style.
The Irish finished as runner-up in this year's tournament after routing
Georgetown and St. John's on the way to the championship match against the Hurricanes. Notre Dame came close to defending its title, but fell just short with a 5-2 defeat.
"Our team played really hard today, and we left it all on the court," Irish head coach Bob Bayliss said. "[Miami] has been ranked in the top 25 all year, and they are just a little bit better than us."
The chance to secure a second straight Big East title looked good after the Irish put in top doubles performances in order to secure the doubles point and capture and 1-0 lead against Miami. Matt Daly and Casey Smith breezed past the Hurricanes' Mark Arrowsmith and Joel Berman 8-1 at No. 3 doubles, while 30th-ranked Javier Taborga and Aaron Talarico topped Miami's 40th-ranked Tomas Smid and Peter Hoffman at No. 1 doubles 8-4 to clinch the doubles point. Those victories gave the Irish a quick 1-0 lead.
Taborga and Talarico came up with a crucial break of serve with the score tied at 4-4, giving them a 5-4 lead that they never relinquished.
"Javier and Aaron were pretty tight in the beginning and then they were able to get one break of serve and it was over after that," teammate Ryan Sachire said. "I thought that those two guys showed a lot of poise and a lot of heart, and they basically fought harder than the other team."
After the excitement of the doubles play had subsided, the Irish took the court in singles play needing three wins to take home the championship trophy. Sachire brought his team closer to that goal with a 6-1, 6-2 victory over the Hurricanes' Smid 6-1, 6-2.
Following Sachire's one-sided win, the momentum crept towards Miami and remained with the Hurricanes until they took home the victory. The Irish held leads in the No. 2 and 3 singles matches, but Miami refused to throw in the towel, rallying for wins in both spots. Daly was downed by the Hurricanes' Hoffman at No. 2 singles 1-6, 6-4, 6-2, after leading by a set and two breaks, while Smith was defeated by Miami's Johan Lindquist 3-6, 7-5, 6-2 at No. 3 singles.
"Casey started hitting short off his backhand and Lindquist was able to dictate play and take over the match, but I thought Casey fought awfully hard," Bayliss said. "And Matt played a little too safely, and played a little bit not to lose. He dictated for the first set and a half, and Hoffman dictated for the last set and a half. Unfortunately, that was the one that won the match."
The Irish lost at the Nos. 4, 5, and 6 singles matches before Smith and Daly were defeated. The Hurricanes' Michael Lang topped Talarico 6-2, 6-2, at No. 4, the Irish's Andrew Laflin was downed by Miami's Jose Lieberman 7-6 (7-4), 6-1, at No. 5, while Trent Miller was defeated by the Hurricanes' Berman 6-2, 6-4, at No. 6 singles.
Before the tough loss in the championship match, the Irish captured convincing wins over Georgetown and St. John's in the earlier rounds of the tournament.
On the first day of play the Irish were set to face off against the meager Hoyas, who had defeated Villanova the previous day. The lopsided match-up was no secret to both teams, and the Irish just tried to play their game and stay focused.
"I was not going to give a fiery pep talk against Georgetown," Bayliss said. "Our plan was to not play loose mental points. What I told them was to pretend it was 4-4 in the third set in the championship match. If you're winning easily and are not threatened it's easy to get into a mental cruise control, but we want to go at the highest level we can the entire time."
Notre Dame cruised to a 4-0 victory with doubles wins from Taborga and Talarico at No. 1 and Miller and Sachire at No. 2, while Sachire, Smith, and James Malhame contributed singles wins at Nos. 1, 3, and 6 respectively. The remaining singles matches were abandoned once the Irish had secured the victory.
The next day's matchup against St. John's provided more competition for the Irish, but they still ran away with a 4-0 victory.
"We played well," Miller said. "Their team was solid. It was definitely a step up from yesterday. [St. John's] came out strong, and that was kind of a wake-up call for us."
Smith and Daly won at No. 3 doubles, while Sachire and Miller were also victorious at No. 2 doubles to clinch the doubles point for the Irish. Talarico, Laflin, and Miller chipped in singles wins in their respective matches at Nos. 3, 4, and 5.
After the easy wins over Georgetown and St. John's that set up a rematch with Miami in the final, the Irish were aware that the level of play was going to increase tremendously.
"I think we definitely have to step it up a notch," Talarico said after the St. John's victory. "Everyone is going to have to be ready to grind. As long as everyone sticks to their game plan, we'll be in good shape."
The Irish did take their game to a higher level in the battle against Miami, fighting for every point, but victory was just not meant to be.
"I think we did leave it on the court today," Irish assistant coach Mike Morgan said. "We left our full effort on the court, we just came up a little short, but that's the way it goes."
All Sports Stories for Wednesday, April 26, 2000