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After a program swoon, Texas women closing in on NCAA national title while UT men keep battling

No. 2 Texas faces No. 6 N.C. State in NCAA national semifinals at 10 a.m. Friday in Orlando

Texas seniors Anna Turati, right, and Fernando Labraña hug after Labraña's 6-2, 2-6, 6-3 win over Florida State's Andrea Garcia clinched the regional finals.

Women’s tennis coach Howard Joffe simply couldn’t bring himself to stay in College Station. He left Texas A&M for Texas in 2015 and never looked back.

Calling Texas a “designer brand” that’s unmatched in college athletics, Joffe made clear why he wanted to take over the UT women’s program, which was slumping at the time.

“While I was comfortable where I was,” Joffe told the American-Statesman in 2015, “the possibility to do well over an extended amount of time (at Texas) is as good of a job as there can be.”

Almost six full years later, Joffe now has the Longhorns on the brink of a women’s tennis national championship. No. 2 Texas will face No. 6 North Carolina State in the NCAA national semifinals Friday morning in Orlando, Fla.

“I would say that the program is on a collision course with excellence, for sure,” Joffe said Wednesday.

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Texas is close to becoming the center of the collegiate tennis universe. The UT men’s team pulled off a gutty 4-3 win over USC in the NCAA regional finals on Thursday afternoon. Cleeve Harper closed it out with a 6-4, 3-6, 7-5 win in the No. 4 position. 

The Horns — still the reigning national champions from 2019 thanks to COVID-19's cancellation of the 2020 season — could face a familiar foe in the tennis equivalent of the Final Four. No. 1 Florida faced No. 8 Texas A&M in the last region final late Thursday.

Joffe’s Horns are 29-1 in dual match play this season with four wins over top-10 foes. The UT women have a 22-match winning streak. Texas tore through No. 7 Florida State in the regional finals 4-0 for the team’s 22nd straight match victory. 

N.C. State (20-5) is also eyeing history. The Wolfpack are enjoying their deepest run in NCAA history. No. 1 North Carolina and No. 5 Pepperdine will play in the other semifinal. The national championship match is scheduled for Saturday. 

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Anna Turati returned for her senior season and has gone 19-3 in singles play, helping the second-ranked Longhorns reach the NCAA Final Four.

“I like our team, and I like our ladies,” Joffe said with his trademark South African twang. “They’re very talented and have grown up fast. I anticipate a very difficult and tough match, but I do like our team.”

This isn’t completely foreign territory. The Horns captured national titles in 1993 and 1995. But the program tailed off after finishing as a national runner-up in 2005. By the time Joffe arrived 10 years later, UT hadn’t even won a share of the Big 12 title since 2007.

Longtime followers of these Horns know how much heavy lifting the Turati sisters have done. Bianca Turati was the nation’s No. 1 player for a stretch in 2018 and one of the program’s most decorated before going pro last year. Anna Turati returned and has gone 19-3 this season, including a 5-1 mark in the No. 1 slot.

But Joffe has recruited some monster smashers, such as freshman Peyton Stearns from Mason, Ohio. She’s 11-4 when playing from the No. 1 spot, meaning she faces the opposing team’s best player, too. 

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Lulu Sun, a freshman from Switzerland, is 14-1 as the No. 3 player. Charlotte Chavatipon, a freshman from Fullerton, Calif., is 19-1 in the No. 4 slot.

It’s a balanced bunch, too. Senior Fernanda Labraña was the one who clinched the match win over Florida State with a 6-2, 2-6, 6-3 dogfight against Andrea Garcia. Labraña is 23-2 in singles play this season. 

“Coach Joffe is always telling us to be leaders of the team,” Labraña said. The seniors “have more experience in this tournament, even though it’s the third time we’re playing in it. But for everyone else, it’s the first time. I guess we’re just showing them our experience and just fighting out there and keeping everyone comfortable.”

Joffe talks openly and honestly about living in the moment. No matter how many games, sets or matches they’ve won, Joffe believes the Horns must stay focused. 

“You’d like to think the force is pretty unstoppable,” Joffe said. “The only thing that really matters is what version of themselves show up to play the game.”

Contact Brian Davis by phone or text at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com or @BDavisAAS.