URBANA, Ill.- An ankle injury ended Kristie Ahn's All-American freshman year during the postseason, turning her into a helpless spectator as Stanford fell to Florida in the NCAA championship at Taube.
Ahn's sophomore year was cut even shorter, playing in only three dual matches as she battled an assortment of injuries and rehabbed tirelessly to get back into playing shape.
So, you could say the junior basically made up for lost time on Tuesday night.
Ahn's 7-5, 4-6, 6-2 win clinched a dramatic 4-3 victory for No. 12 Stanford over No. 3 Texas A&M, capping an emotional week of heart-stopping comebacks and heroic moments at the 2013 NCAA Women's Tennis Championships.
OK, so the Cardinal wasn't exactly Cinderella. The most storied program in women's tennis history, Stanford (22-4, 8-2 Pac-12) claimed its 18th national championship (17 NCAA, 1 AIAW) and first since 2010 in Athens, Ga. The Cardinal also collected its NCAA-best 129th postseason victory.
That being said, this Stanford team became the lowest-seeded squad (No. 12) to capture an NCAA title. The Cardinal simply just kept defying the odds, knocking off the tournament's Nos. 5, 4, 1 and 3 seeds over a span of five days. It was an incredible accomplishment for a club 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.
But here's the thing. The story doesn't stop there.
Only junior Nicole Gibbs and senior Stacey Tan had competed in more than two NCAA Tournament matches prior to this season. A walk-on during her first two seasons, senior Natalie Dillon had not played in the lineup full-time until her junior year. Given the scope of her injuries, who knew what Ahn could provide in a full season? Sophomore Ellen Tsay had limited NCAA experience and freshman Krista Hardebeck was just making her debut. In many respects, this was arguably one of the best coaching jobs by head coach Lele Forood and associate head coach Frankie Brennan during their legendary tenure.
Sniffing an opportunity against Texas A&M (26-4, 12-1 SEC), a newcomer to the NCAA title match scene whose best previous appearance was a round of 16 showing, Stanford was up to the task early on.
The Cardinal claimed the doubles point for the 23rd time in 26 matches, taking a pivotal 1-0 lead. With the matches split on the top two courts, Dillon and Hardebeck pulled away from the sister combo of Ines Deheza and Paula Deheza on court three by an 8-5 margin.
Head coach Lele Forood has compiled a head-scratching 330-23 record during her tenure on The Farm.
Moving into singles play, Stanford took a 2-0 lead when Stacey Tan defeated Ines Deheza 7-5, 6-3 at the No. 4 spot. In a battle of senior (Tan) vs. freshman (Deheza), the Cardinal came out on top. After all, how many teams have the luxury of sticking a former NCAA singles runner-up at the No. 4 spot?
Following that same theme was Gibbs at the top spot of the lineup, although that certainly wasn't the case early on. Cristina Sanchez-Quintanar surprised everyone by blanking Gibbs 6-0 in the first set, becoming the first opponent to accomplish the feat in 120 career matches.
That's when Gibbs flipped the switch. Trailing 2-0 in the second set, Gibbs proceeded to rattle off 12 consecutive games against Sanchez-Quintanar, in a tone-setting 0-6, 6-2, 6-0 triumph at the No. 1 spot. Gibbs, who has publicly voiced her decision to turn pro at the end of this year, now has a team title to go with her defending NCAA singles and doubles crowns from last year. Simply put, Gibbs treated Stanford fans to her best in her last on Tuesday.
Leading 3-0, newcomer Texas A&M found itself on the verge of a laugher. But the Aggies weren't done.
3-0 quickly turned into 3-3.
A late addition to the lineup, Anna Mamalat defeated Tsay 6-1, 7-5 at the No. 5 spot , trimming the deficit to 3-1.
Nazari Urbina might have come through with the biggest victory, making sure Hardebeck would not provide the clincher and more Stanford fan excitement for a third straight match in a 6-3, 7-6 (3) win on court three.
Stefania Hristov eventually shook off hard-charging Natalie Dillon at the No. 6 position, winning 6-2, 3-6, 6-1 on court six.
Just like that, the match was tied.
Ahn had taken her first set 7-5 before Stancu won the second frame 6-4. Tied at 2-2 in deciding set, Ahn put her foot on the gas and placed the Cardinal on her back.
After a series of championship points, Stancu belted a forehand that sailed wide, and Ahn prepared herself for an ensuing dogpile after taking the final set 6-2.
No. 12 Stanford 4, No. 3 Texas A&M 3
1) No. 18 Stancu/Hristov (TAMU) d. No. 8 Ahn/Gibbs 8-3
2) No. 28 Tan/Tsay (STAN) d. No. 49 Wen/Sanchez-Quintanar (TAMU) 8-4
3) Dillon/Hardebeck (STAN) d. Deheza/Deheza (TAMU) 8-5
Order of Finish: 1, 2, 3
1) No. 13 Nicole Gibbs (STAN) d. No. 4 Cristina Sanchez-Quintanar (TAMU) 0-6, 6-2, 6-0
2) No. 25 Kristie Ahn (STAN) d. No. 68 Cristina Stancu (TAMU) 7-5, 4-6, 6-2
3) No. 52 Nazari Urbina (TAMU) d. No. 14 Krista Hardebeck (STAN) 6-3, 7-6 (3)
4) No. 103 Stacey Tan (STAN) d. Ines Deheza (TAMU) 7-5, 6-3
5) Anna Mamalat (TAMU) d. No. 92 Ellen Tsay (STAN) 6-1, 7-5
6) Stefania Hristov (TAMU) d. Natalie Dillon (STAN) 6-2, 3-6, 6-1
Order of Finish: 4, 1, 5, 3, 6, 2
2013 All-Tournament Team
No. 1 Singles: Nicole Gibbs, Stanford
No. 2 Singles: Kristie Ahn, Stanford
No. 3 Singles: Nazari Urbina, Texas A&M
No. 4 Singles: Stacey Tan, Stanford
No. 5 Singles: Olivia Janowicz, Florida
No. 6 Singles: Caroline Hitimana, Florida
No. 1 Doubles: Cristina Stancu/Stefania Hristov, Texas A&M
No. 2 Doubles: Stacey Tan/Ellen Tsay, Stanford
No. 3 Doubles: Krista Hardebeck/Natalie Dillon, Stanford
Most Outstanding Player: Nicole Gibbs, Stanford
NOTES: Stanford has won 17 NCAA championships: 1982, 1984, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1997, 1999, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2010, 2013 ... Only one four-year class (1993-96) has not won a championship at Stanford since the inception of the NCAA Tournament in 1982. Every other student-athlete who has spent four years as a member of the program has concluded their career with a national championship ring ... The good DAPER folks who work inside the Arrillaga Family Sports Center can breathe easily, as Stanford has kept its annual NCAA title streak alive ... Head coach Lele Forood has compiled a head-scratching 330-23 record during her tenure on The Farm. That now includes seven NCAA titles ... Seniors Stacey Tan and Natalie Dillon wrap up their careers with two rings on their fingers, winning NCAA championships in 2010 and 2013 ... Kristie Ahn improved to 3-3 in three-setters this year. She's quick to credit athletic trainers Katie Susskind and Michelle Vryhoff with her overall health and performance ... A walk-on during her first two seasons, Natalie Dillon closes out her career with 33 overall victories ... When Stanford won the NCAA title in 2010, Mallory Burdette was named the Most Outstanding Player ... Stanford is well represented in the individual field, as Gibbs, Ahn and Hardebeck will all compete in singles. Two doubles teams are in action: Ahn/Gibbs and Tan/Tsay.
Stanford Head Coach Lele Forood
"It's a great feeling. This has been a great team for a long time. A lot of these players are juniors and seniors who have contributed heavily to the win. For Kristie Ahn to clinch is just poetic justice because she's been the missing player for the last two years (due to injuries) at the end of the season, and we weren't able to get it done without her, and when we got her back, we got it done."
"I felt bad for Nicole early on. I wanted her to find a way to get back in the match. Early in the second set, she said, 'I have to win this match. I have to do things differently.' And so it was her urgency and I think she found a little more energy. I think she felt a little sluggish in her legs early in the match and her opponent was playing beautifully, extremely well. But she found some energy, was able to plug away, get the momentum in her favor and things got rolling for her after that."
Stanford junior Kristie Ahn:
"Honestly, it's such a cliché, but words really can't explain this one. From my freshman year, I've wanted this moment, and I've been bugged by injuries, and to clinch makes it that much better. When we played USC in the round of 16, I had a shot. It could've come down to me and I could've clinched, but she played well, and I didn't get that and was pretty upset. Last night I was thinking, `How sick would it be if I could clinch tomorrow?' And when I got to 2-2 in the third set, I was smiling. I was having the best time of my life because I was thinking about how absurd it was that it was coming down to me."
"She (Urbina) started shanking balls and pushing a little bit. But I was like, this is it. Watching Krista last night was so inspiring, and I kind of drew from that. I can't tell you the amount of good energy I felt, how absurd that it was coming down to a 4-2, 4-3 match in the finals, it's crazy. And I started smiling uncontrollably. Life does not get more absurdly wonderful than this."
"My team is a bunch of nerds. We love politics. I can't tell you the dinner conversations we have. It's too much about substance."
Stanford junior Nicole Gibbs:
"I've had a leadership role on this team, and it's really hard to see your No. 1 player go down 6-0, 6-0. We saw that yesterday with Florida, when I was lucky enough to rattle a couple off against Lauren Embree. That's a tough blow to come back from, so I think just sitting there thinking about the impact I was having on my team from losing just made me dig a little bit deeper, get through being tired, being exhausted from all the energy we've been putting into this week as captains, and just push through. Evidently it worked. It was the weirdest match I've ever played in my life, but I'll take it today."
"This means so much more to me than any of the individual titles last year. Obviously it's awesome to have all three under my belt, but this was the one I wanted. I came back to school after having such a good year to chase after this title, and having it just means so, so much. It's everything I ever could have wanted. I'm so happy I got it."