URBANA, Ill.- Freshman Krista Hardebeck introduced herself to the Stanford-Florida rivalry in a big way on Monday night, clinching No. 12 Stanford's 4-3 victory and spot in the national championship match against the No. 3 Texas A&M, which will be playing for its first crown in school history.
Meanwhile, tradition-rich Stanford has compiled 17 national championships (16 NCAA, 1 AIAW) and 128 postseason victories.
Florida was bidding to three-peat as national champions, but those hopes were derailed by Hardebeck, who notched her team-leading 34th overall win and displayed incredible composure in a 6-7 (5), 7-6 (5), 6-3 thriller over Alexandra Cercone at the No. 3 spot.
With that said, here are a few interesting storylines heading into Tuesday's match:
A Chance For The Rich To Get Richer
Stanford has won more NCAA women's tennis championships than any other program and chases title No. 17 tonight. On the other side of the court is Texas A&M, which prior to this year enjoyed its best finish with a round of 16 effort in 2004. So, there's that. After knocking off three straight heavyweights, does Stanford have anything left physically and emotionally? This team has continued to step up when the points matter most, so we'll assume the answer is a resounding yes. Every successive win has established some type of school record for title match first-timer Texas A&M. But there's absolutely no reason to think this will be a cake-walk. The Aggies have owned a top-5 national ranking since the calendar flipped to March and were one of two schools to beat Florida prior to Stanford making it three last night.
Taking A Close Look At Texas A&M
Every step here in Urbana is new to Texas A&M, which is now 17-18 all-time in the NCAA Tournament. Second-year head coach Howard Joffe has assembled an intriguing group that hails from everywhere except deep in the heart of you-know-where. Of the Aggies' eight players, two come from Bolivia, two more from Romania, one each from China, Mexico and Spain, and the lone American is from Philadelphia. Texas A&M's top two guns are No. 4-ranked Cristina Sanchez-Quintanar and No. 68-ranked Cristina Stancu, a pair of veteran transfers from Maryland. The lower three spots in the lineup are held down by freshmen. And they are good. Including No. 4 player Ines Deheza, who showed nerves of steel in providing the clincher during last night's 4-3 victory over UCLA's Chanelle Van Nguyen.
Putting An Incredible Run In Perspective
Stanford is the lowest-seeded team to reach the championship match since UCLA's runner-up finish also as a No. 12 seed in 2007. It's really an incredible accomplishment for a squad that lost its No. 2 player and All-American Mallory Burdette in September, as she elected to forego her senior season and begin her pro career. Prior to this season, only Nicole Gibbs and Stacey Tan had competed in more than two NCAA Tournament matches. A walk-on during her first two seasons, Natalie Dillon had not played in the lineup full-time until her junior year. Who knew what Kristie Ahn would provide? She missed all but three matches in 2012 and basically the entire 2011 postseason due to injuries. Ellen Tsay has limited NCAA experience and Krista Hardebeck is a rookie. Head coach Lele Forood and associate head coach Frankie Brennan have been there and done that during their legendary tenures on The Farm, but this one must feel extra special.
Will The Elements Be A Factor?
It's just cloudy and breezy right now, but will it stay that way? Thunderstorms are expected to hit the area hours before the start of the match and during the men's championship between UCLA and Virginia scheduled for 1 p.m. local time. If the contest gets shifted indoors, and that's looking like a possibility, anything can happen. Stanford has limited experience playing inside this year, aside from the regular season match against Florida that was moved from outside. Texas A&M participated in the ITA National Team Indoor Championships back in February, posting a 2-1 mark that included wins over Texas (4-2) and Virginia (4-1) and a loss to North Carolina (4-0). The setting is much different for an indoor match, where the crowd - although potentially smaller in number - is usually even closer to the action.
By The Way, It Doesn't Stop Here
As many have learned over the last four days, the team portion of the NCAA Championships is incredibly entertaining to watch. Where are the points going to come from? Who plays best when the pressure is on? Which team can capitalize on momentum swings? But that format will change over the next two days, when the singles and doubles championships get underway. Stanford is well represented there too, although it might be tough to close the book on such a grueling team event and focus on individuals. Nicole Gibbs is back to defend both her NCAA singles and doubles championships from last year, and joining her in singles is Kristie Ahn and Krista Hardebeck. In the doubles draw, the Cardinal will feature Ahn/Gibbs and Stacey Tan and Ellen Tsay. But for the next 24 hours, the focus is on the team.