Three weeks ago, Yuya Ito struggled to keep the Big 12 Championship trophy up during a long team photograph session in front of Littlefield Fountain. On Sunday afternoon, Ito held onto an even bigger trophy: The NCAA Championship. Ito clutched it tightly with both hands just moments after Texas clinched its first men’s tennis title in program history.
“I’ve played here for three years. We always talked about winning the national championship,” Ito told Andy Katz in a post-match interview. “I just believed. I sometimes felt discouraged, but I just tried to believe that we could win it and it happened. I feel like I’m dreaming right now.”
The second-seeded Longhorns breezed through their first and second rounds and swept California in a first-ever home Super Regional. The following week, the Longhorns headed to Orlando, where they outscored No. 9 TCU and No. 4 Florida by a combined 8-3 to meet No. 3 Wake Forest –– the defending national champions who have not lost a match since March 13 –– in the title match.
Coincidentally, that was the same day Texas fired head coach Michael Center. The 18-year head coach was fired after his involvement in the nationwide collegiate admissions scandal that resulted in the indictments of numerous coaches for accepting bribes to help students get into top schools across the country.
Then-assistant coach Bruce Berque became the interim head coach, leading the Longhorns to a 8–1 record to close out the regular season.
“When I came in, I told these guys on the first day that it wasn’t going to be about me,” Berque said. “It wasn’t a power trip. I wanted the best for them and I wanted to help them lead this team. That’s the approach that I took, and it seems to have worked out well.”
Early on, things didn’t look great for Texas with Wake Forest taking the doubles point and earning a 1-0 lead in the process.
However, it was familiar territory. Sunday afternoon marked the eighth doubles point surrendered by a Longhorn team that only dropped three team matches all year. When asked about the pressure created by an early deficit, senior Harrison Scott, Berque and Ito shared a brief laugh with the national championship trophy sitting next to them.
Christian Sigsgaard — Texas’ regular in the 1 spot — took down No. 11 Borna Gojo in straight sets to even the match.
“That was fantastic. We knew we had a chance at one and two, but we also thought that’s where they were the strongest,” Berque said of Sigsgaard and Ito winning. “For our guys to beat both of them gave us a huge lift. Before you knew it, we went from not playing very well in singles and being behind on a lot of courts to being a point or two from winning the whole thing.”
The shift came courtesy of seniors Rodrigo Banzer and Colin Markes, the latter of which Berque has called “arguably the most improved senior in the country.”
Ito would clinch it, rallying from losing his first set to win the next two against No. 8 Petros Chrysochos, putting it away for Texas.
After Texas capped off its first title in program history, a typically reserved Scott talked about what it meant to overcome the loss of a head coach midseason and how it affected the team.
“I think it definitely made us more motivated to prove something,” Scott said. “I mean, you can look on Twitter, a lot of people didn’t pick us to win at all, or had us losing to Alabama. The Thursday after (Center was fired, Ohio State) showed up thinking we may mentally not be there. I think that was our first test. We fought really hard, and we showed who we were. And we kept showing it.”
Berque insisted he didn’t know how close Texas was to winning until Ito was two points away from victory.
On Sunday –– just as they did all season –– the Longhorns never let their focus waver, and eventually, they inevitably found themselves on top.