Fight on in Ojai: Second-seeded USC Trojans sweep surprise finalists Cal for Pac 12 Men’s Tennis Championships title
By Thomas Cluck
(April 27, 2019) Oh what a weekend it was in Ojai for two unlikely heroes of Troy. Fighting to hold off another late charge, this time from the young, upstart fourth-seeded Cal, USC Trojan freshman Mor Bulis and Jake Sands put the final nails in the Golden Bears’ coffin on a chilly Saturday evening at Libbey Park in Ojai, California, with Southern California native Sands earning the fourth and final point to clinch the tie.
At a classic venue in its second century of top-notch tennis, in front of a legion of local Southern California fans in Ojai, it was the second-seeded USC Trojans claiming their fourth Pac 12 Men’s Tennis Championships title over number four seeds Cal 4-0 to earn an automatic berth to the NCAA Men’s Tennis Championships tournament and make it two of the last three conference championship trophies going back to Troy.
USC’s well-known depth in its roster was on full display from the start in the doubles, where a spark was lit for the Trojans that carried on the entire match as USC’s number three team of sophomore Daniel Cukierman out of Israel and senior Tanner Smith dominated Cal’s British duo of Ben Draper and Jack Molloy 6-1 to get things started.
That momentum was carried on just one court over as moments later Australian Jack Jaede and Belgian Laurens Verboven clinched the doubles point for USC 6-4 Cal’s Paul Barretto and Can Kaya.
Starting singles action, it was clear that signature Trojan depth would be tested all the way down to number six in their lineup, with two of USC’s top players in Brandon Holt, the son of former American great Tracy Austin, and Riley Smith both in lengthy battles with the Golden Bears.
Cukierman’s great day continued to lift the Trojans up, once again getting the first point on the board in the singles this time, routing Cal’s Molloy 6-0, 6-2 before Verboven in the third spot got the job done, recovering from a disappointing semifinal performance to push Barretto aside 6-0, 6-3.
With Holt and Riley Smith both games away from dropping their singles and seeing the Trojan’s lead shrink significantly, it was the unlikely five and six spot freshman in Sands and Bulis respectively that saved the day for USC. Battling side-by-side on the outermost courts of Ojai’s Libbey Park, Sands and Bulis both reached the finish line at nearly identical times, with multiple match points passing both freshmen by before Sands finished the job for USC over Golden Bear hero Jacob Brumm 7-6, 6-1 and clinched the match and a fourth Pac 12 Men’s Tennis Championships title.
It was notable that while two of the Trojans’ top players in Holt and Smith were locked in fierce battles with some of the best Cal had to offer that it was two freshman in the biggest collegiate tennis matches of their young careers coming up big for the legendary USC program to win its 23rd overall conference championship title and it was so reflective of what’s made USC such a powerhouse for so many years and will make the Trojans one of the top contenders in the NCAA tournament- their remarkable depth.
“You’re excited for the two freshmen at five and six to have a chance to clinch a conference championship,” said USC head coach Peter Smith.
“I think it’s great for their confidence and experience. The excitement level for them is through the roof.”
Believing in his roster’s training and depth, Smith said “you win in May based on your training in February and March. The work has been done and it’s time for us to relax and go compete.”
For USC, the Trojans will do just that, sit back, relax, and watch comfortably as the NCAA Men’s Tennis Tournament Selection Show occurs on Monday, April 29th, knowing they determined their own fate with their automatic bid to the championships courtesy of their conference championship win.
But the Trojans and every other top team can’t relax too much on selection day, all waiting to see what happens with the young and surging Cal Golden Bears team, fresh off their strong performance against USC and their stunning upset of 2018 Pac 12 Champions UCLA.
“I’m so proud of what this young team has accomplished so far this season. Reaching the final of the Pac-12 Championship was a good way for us to start the postseason,” said Cal head coach Peter Wright.
“We played well, but USC was better on the day. We have so many positives that came out of our matches the last three days. Now it’s on to the NCAAs, and I feel we’ve done the work to position ourselves to play well no matter where we play.”
Both the Trojans and the Golden Bears will be eyeing down another appearance at the national championships with the NCAA Tennis Championships set for May 16th-25th at the USTA National Campus in Lake Nona, Florida in just under a month’s time.