Brandon Holt came to USC to win a national championship. The Trojans, winners of 21 men’s tennis NCAA titles, expect nothing less.
The senior’s best and final chance at that goal ended suddenly last week, when the NCAA canceled winter and spring championships amid the coronavirus pandemic. It was shocking news, yet as Holt sat in his parents’ Palos Verdes home on a rainy weekend, the feelings of disappointment mixed with gratitude.
“I loved this year,” the four-time All-American said, “and I would not have traded it for anything.”
Although the top-ranked Trojans were denied an opportunity to play for their first NCAA title since 2014, they celebrated the successful beginning of a new era in the program and their first indoor title since 2012. With Holt and senior Riley Smith leading the way, USC (13-1) used its tight bond to become the championship favorite before the season’s sudden end.
“We have the talent across the board, and I think they all knew that,” first-year head coach Brett Masi said, “but I think it’s the little things that we needed to maintain on a daily basis. From [Holt and Smith’s] three years before and knowing some of the failures and mistakes that had happened in previous years, they were wise to it and kept the boat rolling in the right direction.”
Holt said this year’s team was the closest one he’s been on during his time at USC. He looked forward to nothing more every day than getting to practice with his teammates. That made the shocking end hurt even more; Holt knows he won’t have this opportunity anymore.
While the NCAA announced all spring sports athletes will be allowed an additional year of eligibility, Holt is ready for the end of his college career.
The Palos Verdes High alumnus was close to giving up his final year at USC before it even started. After he was named Pac-12 singles player of the year as a junior and was the first USC player to reach the NCAA quarterfinals since Steve Johnson in 2012, Holt was considering an early start to his pro career.
But then he looked at his “perfect life” at USC. It’s lonely as a pro, he reasoned. In college, his apartment, his gym, his weight room, his court, his best friends were all clustered together. He wasn’t ready to give it up yet.
“I did it for my teammates, I did it for my coaches and I did it for USC, all the people that gave me so much to help me improve and give us a chance to win the national title,” Holt said. “But that’s kind of taken away, so to put a whole other year on top of that, that’s pretty tough, especially for someone who is aspiring to play professionally.”
USC structured a program for Holt and Smith, another hopeful pro, to occasionally play pro tournaments during the fall while the team played individual events. The Trojans won six titles in eight fall tournaments.
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The fast start cemented Masi’s belief that this team had the makings of something special after not advancing past the NCAA quarterfinals since 2014.
“I could just see that there had been a lot of pain and suffering that they had gone through in terms of they hadn’t met expectations yet,” said Masi, a USC assistant from 2005 to 2009. “So they were hungry to do so.”
The Trojans flexed their muscle during the national indoor championships., winning their first indoor title since 2012. The team overcame illness that plagued several players and coaches during the week and knocked off North Carolina in the final on Feb. 17.
In that moment, the team kept the celebration mellow. The Trojans had larger aspirations.
“We really put our nose to the grindstone after we won and kept working really hard for what was going to be the ultimate goal,” Holt said. “That’s what made our team special: that we always looked forward to the next thing.”
USC lost just one point in four matches since the indoor championships. The Trojans were about to face rival UCLA when the Pac-12 suspended all competitions on March 12. Soon after, the NCAA canceled winter and spring championships.
Before the news, the Trojans were fitted for their indoor championship rings. While those aren’t the prizes they were hoping for this season, the title has taken on special meaning now.
“We finished the year No. 1,” Masi said, “and no one can take this away from us.”