By Turner Walston
ATHENS, Ga. - It started with love. Ronnie Schneider felt it when he visited Carolina, the embrace of the Carolina family. He wanted to be a part of it. He knew in his heart that Carolina men's tennis could reach the ranks of the elite. He knew, and that's why he committed to Sam Paul's program as a high school junior. He knew, and that's why he worked on longtime friend Jack Murray and Canadian standout Brayden Schnur to join him. He knew that his class could help raise the bar for Carolina men's tennis. And he knew that he had the support of that Carolina family. That love.
Five years later, Schneider sat next to Paul at a table for a post-match press conference on Tuesday evening after Carolina's 4-2 loss to Virginia in the NCAA Tournament final. He was exhausted, mentally, physically, emotionally. The loss was too raw, too sudden, too final for Schneider to give an accounting of his entire career just ten minutes after the last point. But such is the nature of postseason press conferences.
"I told Will (Blumberg) before we walked in here, if we got that question, I'm going to lose it," Schneider said. And he paused. Took a deep breath. "Oh my God."
There was no real way for Schneider put it all into words, not in that singular moment, but he tried. He reflected on coming in with Murray and Schnur, on how the year before he arrived, the Tar Heels had missed the NCAA Tournament entirely, on how they'd made the Elite Eight three straight times , how they'd won an Intercollegiate Tennis Association national championship a year ago, how they'd reached the program's first-ever Final Four and how they'd just played for an NCAA Tournament championship. He reflected on that love, the support in the stands on Tuesday, how former Tar Heels dotted the stands, mingling with families and fans and Carolina women's tennis players. And there was Schnur, who turned pro last year, having flown in from Nigeria to sit on the front row and cheer on his former teammates.
He reflected on the team's unique relationship with Mick Macholl, the love they showed a young man who the team adopted and who passed away of cancer in December. "That was heartbreaking and devastating," Schneider said, but he and his teammates never regretted investing.
"Stuff like that made it all worthwhile. I can't thank Coach Paul enough for the opportunity to play here," Schneider said. "These have honestly been the best four years of my life. I will always be a Carolina Tar Heel."
On the other end of the table, on the other side of Paul, sat Blumberg, the talented freshman who enrolled at Carolina early, who would have been a senior in high school this spring yet chose to come to college and play his sport at a higher level.
Schneider and Blumberg played at the one and two spots, respectively, all season long, setting the tone at the top of the Tar Heel lineup. And they delivered. Playing at one, Schneider faced the opponent's best night in and night out, and he went 30-14. Blumberg was right beside him at #2. The freshman went 26-2, reeling off 20 straight dual-match wins down the stretch.
Blumberg saw an opportunity to contribute on a college tennis team right away, and he seized it. He felt that same love that Schneider had felt, and he wanted in. "When I visited Carolina, I met guys like Ronnie and Rob (Kelly) and Bo (Boyden), Coach and Tripp (Phillips)," Blumberg said. "We have incredible heart. This tournament, this week is not about talent. Everyone's talented. Everyone can hit a forehand, backhand. It's about never giving up."
And they didn't. Tuesday, the Tar Heels lost a tough doubles point when Murray and Simon Soendergaard dropped a tiebreak. Then they earned singles wins on two and three from Blumberg and Kelly, but Schneider and Soendergaard bowed. With only four indoor courts at Georgia, Murray and Boyden took the court both needing to win for the Tar Heels to clinch. They fell in straight sets.
They were right there. The doubles point could have easily gone the other way. Murray's first-set tiebreak could have easily gone the other way. But that, quite literally, is the way the ball bounces sometimes, and Virginia won its third straight national title and fourth in five years.
And though the Carolina men's tennis program, its coaches, players, alumni and fans were proud of the outstanding run by the 2017 team, no one was satisfied. "What these guys did, making the Elite Eight and winning a national championship? Yeah, we want more," Paul said. "We're not happy today holding the second-place trophy."
Throughout his career, Schneider has been careful to say that he wanted to help elevate Carolina men's tennis for the long run, not just his four year career. And his leadership, along with Murray and Chad Hoskins, will endure in the players they mentored along the way.
In that post-match press conference, they flanked their head coach, Schneider the ITA Senior of the Year and the Blumberg the ITA Freshman of the Year. The once and future leaders of Carolina men's tennis. Blumberg, Kelly, Soendergaard and Boyden, they step forward now.
"I wanted to establish a culture of excellence in everything we do," Schneider reiterated Tuesday on his intentions in Chapel Hill. "I don't want it to be a splash in the pan," he said, mixing metaphors but making perfect sense. "I really want Carolina tennis to be competing for national championships year in and year out long after I'm gone, so I can be like these alumni, flying in when we get to the Elite Eight and Final Four and cheering them on.
"That's been my goal," he said. "I wanted to raise the level of Carolina tennis to a new national powerhouse, and I think within these last four years that that goal has been achieved."
Schneider knew it was possible, and he helped make it happen. And Carolina will be right there near the top of the preseason rankings next year.
But Blumberg has learned from Schneider, and he's right: Any tennis player can hit a forehand, a backhand, can return a serve, but it's the heart that will take a team to unprecedented heights. It's that team camaraderie, that commitment to excellence on the court, to discipline in the classroom, to the community, that will buoy a team through a season.
Schneider knew, and now Blumberg knows: Like any tennis match, it starts with love.