It took just one smile for Ralf Steinbach to realize what was at stake.
The Ohio State men’s tennis redshirt freshman had just broken USC’s Connor Farren to take a 7-6 (7-4), 5-4 lead in the final of the ITA National Team Indoor Championship in Houston, Texas, on Monday. The Buckeyes had won the doubles point, and Hunter Callahan had defeated the Trojans’ Jerry Wong in singles to give OSU a second point.
Senior Peter Kobelt, the No. 23-ranked singles player in the country, walked over to Steinbach’s court and flashed a smile. He had won his match, meaning that the Germany native could clinch the program’s first indoor team title by serving out his match.
“Pete came to my court and I looked at him and saw him smiling, so I knew he won,” Steinbach said. “I saw Hunter winning, so I knew we were up 3-1. There was a point where I realized, OK, I can finish it.”
He endured some nervy moments, dropping three straight points after building a 30-0 lead in the deciding game, but Steinbach finished off Farren and triggered a dogpile celebration on the court.
That joyous moment was a long time in the making for an incredibly successful program, but not many people who gazed into a crystal ball saw it happening this year. Even Kobelt admitted that while he knew the caliber of program he joining as a freshman in 2009, the 2013-14 season hadn’t seemed like the most realistic time for OSU to reach the pinnacle of its sport.
In addition to losing 2013 individual NCAA champion Blaz Rola, the Buckeyes were also without Devin McCarthy, Connor Smith and Ille Van Engelen. Still, head coach and director of tennis Ty Tucker saw something that not many others did – a powerhouse doubles pairing of Kobelt and Kevin Metka could work wonders for the Buckeyes.
“Doubles is a pretty big point, and I think a lot of teams were thinking the Buckeyes would be down a bit,” Tucker said. “We’ve got the best doubles team in the country, at least for indoor tennis. They’re ranked No. 2 in the country but with both serving 130 (miles per hour) and one being lefty, one being righty… I think they’re the best doubles team in the country.
“If you get that doubles point and go up 1-0, 50 percent of it is done. That’s one of the things people overlook. They see that we lost McCarthy, they see that we lost Smith, they see that we lost Rola and Van Engelen, but when you have the No. 1 doubles team – that’s the legit No. 1 team in the country – you’ve always got a shot because the doubles point is within reach.”
The indoor title gave the Buckeyes what the school has coveted on the football field for more than a decade now – a victory for a cold-weather school in a sport dominated by programs south of the Mason-Dixon line. Associate head coach Justin Kronauge estimated that 11 SEC teams made up the top 25, and he wasn’t far off. The conference has seven teams among the top 25, all of which are ranked 18th or higher.
Meanwhile, No. 14 Illinois is the only other ranked Big Ten team to join the newly minted No. 1 Buckeyes in the rankings.
“It’s very hard for a northern school to be able to accomplish this in tennis,” Kronauge said. “A lot of the talent is in Florida, Texas and California. We did it with a couple of Ohio kids and a couple of international guys.”
Somewhat ironically, the victory came during one of the worst Ohio winters in some time. On a 40-degree day that was by far the warmest in recent memory, Kobelt laughed at the thought of Ohio State defeating a school like USC despite hailing from a location that has been draped in snow for essentially all of 2014.
“It’s kind of funny that the worst winter in decades brings a national title,” he said. “The teams like USC, UCLA and Virginia, they always get the best recruits. If you look at their roster, most of them are American. Virginia recruits almost all Americans. UCLA has a lot of good Americans, and same with USC. For us to go and beat them, it means a lot.”
It may not be a football title, but that doesn’t mean players aren’t feeling the love from fans and their fellow students. Steinbach said that in addition to the love he received on Twitter, he also got plenty of congratulations from people on campus after wearing an Ohio State shirt to class on Tuesday.
“Any time any sport wins a national title for the school it’s a huge deal, whether it’s in men’s volleyball like they did two years ago or women’s soccer a couple years back,” Kobelt said. “It’s always a huge deal. A student-athlete is a student-athlete, and you always cheer for your other student-athletes at Ohio State. It’s pretty cool to win one for the tennis program finally, and I hope we get a few more people out to our matches.”
Kobelt has a built-in advantage in converting his fellow athletes into tennis supporters, as he lives with a pair of OSU football players in tight end Jeff Heuerman and wide receiver Evan Spencer, whose father Tim Spencer used to casually play tennis with Tucker while serving as the OSU running backs coach from 1994-2003.
Can his title success rub off on two of Braxton Miller’s targets this fall?
“I was giving them a hard time back at the apartment, but they’re definitely working hard and I think they’ve got real good chance to bring home a national title this year,” Kobelt said.
As a northern team looking to bust the warm-weather bubble, now they only need to look across their apartment for the blueprint.