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Going Out the Ultimate Winner

College tennis: USC men gave Dick Leach his fourth and final NCAA championship to remember during his retirement.

June 09, 2002|LAUREN PETERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As farewells go, USC men's tennis Coach Dick Leach enjoyed a tour de force.

The 62-year-old Leach capped a 23-year career when the Trojans became the lowest-seeded team to win an NCAA Division I championship with the victory May 21 at the Texas A&M Tennis Center in College Station.

"I was in tears," said Leach, who posted a career record 535-133. "This is the last hurrah. How many coaches get to go out and win the national championship in their last match? It just can't be any more special."

Leach had announced April 23 that he would retire at season's end. The Trojans did their part to hold it off as long as possible.

USC (25-5) entered the NCAA Championships seeded No. 11 in the 64-team tournament, but routed Oral Roberts and Arkansas in regional play to start their stretch run.

The Trojans then upended No. 4-seeded Baylor, 4-2, No. 3-seeded Illinois, 4-2, second-seeded Tennessee, 4-3, and top-seeded and defending-champion Georgia, 4-1, on successive days.

"I've seen momentum in basketball and football and volleyball, but I've never seen so much momentum in tennis," Leach said. "It was like a runaway freight train."

The national title was USC's 16th in men's tennis and its fourth under Leach, who this year was selected Intercollegiate Tennis Assn. coach of the year for the third time.

Leach guided the team to titles in 1991, '93 and '94.

"This one is very special because we were such underdogs," said Leach, who is being replaced by former Pepperdine coach Peter Smith.

Although USC qualified for the NCAA tournament in 22 of Leach's 23 seasons, the Trojans hadn't advanced past the round of 16 since 1996. Not much more was expected this season.

"We really went in patches. The season was really up and down," said Prakash Amritraj, the No. 3 singles player. "I always thought we were the kind of team that could beat anyone, but we could also lose to anyone."

Not in the NCAA tournament.

"We were able to come up big in the big matches," said Andrew Park, the No. 1 singles player and one of three seniors on the team. "This was a do-or-die thing for SC. This was the year, with three seniors, the coach retiring ... "

Park, ranked No. 30 in singles by the ITA, played perhaps his best match of the year in a 7-5, 6-3 upset of No. 9-ranked Benjamin Becker of Baylor. Senior Nick Rainey, who advanced to the quarterfinals of the NCAA individual tournament, won key matches over Illinois' Mike Kosta and Tennessee's Mark Dietrich.

Rainey was instrumental in rallying support for the Trojans by purchasing Texas A&M T-shirts that the Trojans wore as they warmed up before the championship match, swaying any neutral parties in the crowd of 1,261.

"We had to do something, and people really got behind us," said senior Ryan Moore, the No. 2 singles player who was leading his match against the Bulldogs when Amritraj clinched the title.

Leach's sons, Rick and Jon, who each played for their father at USC, flew to Texas to watch the final against Georgia.

Amritraj, a freshman whose father, Vijay, and uncle, Anand, were longtime Davis Cup players for India in the 1970s, rallied from a 5-3 second-set deficit to beat Georgia's Bo Hodge, 7-6 (3), 7-5, and clinch the title. He also sealed USC's come-from-behind victories over Illinois and Tennessee.

In the 4-3 semifinal victory over Tennessee, USC trailed, 3-1, but rallied with singles victories by Rainey and Daniel Langre to set the stage for the No. 85-ranked Amritraj to clinch the Trojans' place in the final with a 7-6 (5), 3-6, 6-3 victory over No. 77-ranked Adam Carey.

"After Tennessee, none of us believed it," Amritraj said. "We were in such shock. I don't think coach knew what to do."

The Trojans got plenty of help throughout the postseason from the bottom of their lineup as Langre and Ruben Torres each went unbeaten at No. 5 and No. 6 singles. And for his clutch efforts against Illinois, Tennessee and Georgia, Amritraj was chosen the NCAA tournament's most valuable player.

"He played at a level we haven't seen before," Leach said.

"You win, and it's an incredible feeling. But the journey is where it's at, and if I could bottle and sell the joy I'm feeling right now, I'd make a million dollars."

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