History Made: Harris, Papa National Champions
ATHENS, Ga. – History made.
The Oklahoma men's tennis duo of senior Andrew Harris and junior Spencer Papa won the 2017 NCAA Division I Men's Tennis Doubles Championship on Monday in Athens, Ga. The pair are the first Sooners in program history to win an individual national championship.
Harris and Papa fought out of an early hole to take down the nation's No. 1-ranked duo of Robert Loeb and Jan Zielinski of host school Georgia 6-4, 6-2, 1-0(6) Monday in front of more than 400 fans at the Dan Magill Tennis Center.
"This last match playing in front of this crowd against the No. 1 team in the country with Spencer — it's just amazing. To be able to win the first national championship ever for Oklahoma is pretty awesome."
- Senior Andrew Harris
Things looked bleak for the Sooners at the midway point, as they trailed one set to none and were down 2-0 in the second set. That's when Oklahoma made its stand. OU's newly-minted national champions won six straight games to take the second set 6-2 and force a deciding tiebreaker.
"We challenged them," Oklahoma head coach Nick Crowell said of his message to his team. "We said, 'You have to get mean out there and be more aggressive.' These guys let out some huge eruptions in the middle of the second set and it got their energy going. They started moving faster and started locking in on the returns. I think Loeb's serve was bouncing up on our guys and once we got on top of that we started handling it a little bit."
"We knew we had to pick up the energy," Papa said. "Those couple games gave us a ton of momentum and that helped us through the rest of the match. It just had to come from us. We knew we had to pick it up and that was our only chance to come back from down a break in the second set."
In the extra frame the Sooners pounced early, taking a mini break to lead 4-1, and never looked back. The Sooners got it to six match points before finishing at 10-6 to claim the national title.
Junior Spencer Papa (left) and Andrew Harris (right) pose with their national championship trophies.
Harris and Papa won five matches en route to the title, including victories over teams ranked No. 23, No. 6, No. 3, No. 4, before capping the championship by beating the No. 1 team in the nation Monday in the final.
"We didn't even look past the first round," Harris said. "In college tennis, doubles rankings mean absolutely nothing. In college, with two sets and a superbreaker, anything can happen. We knew we were playing well and could beat anyone."
By virtue of their win, Harris and Papa earn a wild card berth into the 2017 US Open doubles draw at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York City.
In addition to their title, Harris and Papa also brought home OU's fifth and sixth All-America honors in doubles all-time. Harris became a two-time All-American, having also claimed the title in 2015 in singles.
The Sooners' title is just a little sweeter than normal for the veteran duo. The Sooners have come up one win short of the ultimate goal in each of the last three seasons, finishing as the NCAA runners-up in the team finals.
"It feels amazing," Harris said. "This last match playing in front of this crowd against the No. 1 team in the country with Spencer — it's just amazing. We had three tough finals in the team events, but to be able to win the first national championship ever for Oklahoma is pretty awesome."
"You come in August and you kind of dream about things, and I watched this team compete last May in Tulsa and just hoped that one day I would have an opportunity to coach them."
- Head Coach Nick Crowell
Monday's championship finish for Harris and Papa ends the Sooners' 2017 season after a legendary run through the individual championships. In addition to OU's doubles team, Oklahoma's senior captain Alex Ghilea became just the second Sooner ever to make the quarterfinals round of the NCAA singles tournament. The Neamt, Romania, native beat three top-25 opponents, including two in the top-10.
One of the all-time greatest Sooners, Ghilea ended his career as one of seven Oklahoma student-athletes to earn All-America honors in singles. He ranks tied for fourth in OU history with 100 career singles wins and is only the fifth Sooner ever to reach the century mark.
"Unbelievable effort by all three of our guys," Crowell said. "Alex was outstanding and I think he was a spark for our doubles guys. I told our guys, ‘Winning is contagious,' and Alex was winning a bunch. These guys caught fire and just kept rolling."
Harris and Ghilea leave Oklahoma having been part of the most successful run of tennis in program history. They were part of four straight sweet 16 appearances, three NCAA runner-up team finishes, two Big 12 championships and OU's first ever national title at the 2015 National Indoor Championships. Papa has also been on those Sooner teams and will return for his senior season in the fall.
As a team, the Sooners logged their fifth straight NCAA sweet 16 appearance in 2017 and finished with a record of 17-11 in Crowell's first season at the helm for OU.
"You come in August and you kind of dream about things and I watched this team compete last May in Tulsa and just hoped that one day I would have an opportunity to coach them," Crowell said. "It was a great first year and these guys play so hard every day. That's all you can ask for."