By Andy Kanengiser
NCTTA Media Chair
Mississippi College's table tennis team ended a decade of dominance by powerhouse Texas Wesleyan to capture their first national collegiate championship in Wisconsin Sunday.
Moments after the thrilling two-point triumph over the Texas Wesleyan Rams, MC players rushed onto the court to celebrate the victory. On Monday, they will bring a giant trophy home to the 5,000-student university in Clinton, Mississippi.
With games split at two apiece, the fierce match with Texas Wesleyan was decided with doubles play. MC's dynamic duo of Cheng Li and Tong Zhang overcame a 7-3 deficit to shine at the end. The MC stars from China defeated two Texas Wesleyan standouts 12-10 to emerge as the 2015 champions.
After three consecutive years of finishing No. 2 in the nation, staying as runner-ups once again wasn't in the script for the Blue and Gold. MC players rushed onto the court and exchanged hugs and smiles moments after the win.
Ironically, the historic victory came at the 11,000-student University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire that also promotes its Blue and Gold colors, just like the MC Choctaws.
"We are so lucky,'' MC Coach and Captain Cheng Li said at post-game interviews on National Collegiate Table Tennis Association live streaming broadcasts. But it really took lots of skill and a little luck for the 6'3" native of China and teammate Tong Zhang to knock off TWU players Zhe Feng of China and Bruno Ventura Dos Anjos of Brazil. Feng, 38, finished as the new men's singles champion.
"This is a huge step for us,'' added Tyler Brogdon, the lone American on the mighty Mississippi College squad with three other players from China. Putting a funny spin on the moment, Brogdon joked that the MC team was going to Disneyland, the dream of NFL stars at the Super Bowl.
"The whole team worked together,'' said assistant MC coach Zhicheng "Johnson'' Liang. While there were many moments when it looked like MC would end up No. 2 once again, the players never gave up. "We believed in MC,'' he said.
Texas Wesleyan Coach Jasna Rather offered her congratulations to the new champs. But she also thanked her team for another strong effort at the April 10-12 tournament that attracted 250 top collegiate players from the USA and Canada.
"This is table tennis history - they (MC) took us down after 11 years,'' Rather said while Mississippi College players displayed their trophy and posed for pictures. "It's tough.''
Rather said the victory by MC players was "well-deserved.'' Every game, she said, was "so tense.''
It took a team effort by Mississippi College to make it happen. The pressure was on MC's Yi Chi Zhang, but he narrowly captured his singles match to force the final round of doubles. Yi Chi managed to hold on and edge Bruno Ventura Dos Anjos, three games to two.
"To say this is a big deal is really an understatement,'' said National Collegiate Table Tennis Association President Willy Leparulo. "It is a monumental win by Mississippi College.''' The MC triumph, he said, "elevates all of college table tennis'' after Texas Wesleyan's coed team ruled for so many years.
Mississippi College claimed another big trophy from the 2015 TMS College Table Tennis Championships in Wisconsin MC's Cheng Li and Tong Zhang took home the title of No. 1 in the nation with its doubles team.
In its 8th season of table tennis competition, MC's squad received help from assistant coach Liang, who shouted words of encouragement during the games and served as the team's driver for four days in Wisconsin.
Former head coach Ken Qiu, a native of China, built the squad from scratch, with the team ending its first season at the 2008 NCTTA championships as No. 14 in the nation. In 2009, the MC women's team finished 4th in the nation. After a couple of consecutive seasons in 5th place, the Choctaws finally reached the No. 2 spot in 2012 at the national championships in Plano, Texas.
To reach the coveted spot of No. 1 for its coed team, MC defeated schools like Penn State and McGill University of Canada. The team from Clinton entered the tournament seeded No. 2 over bigger schools like California-Berkeley, Princeton, Southern California, Lindenwood of Missouri, Michigan, Mcmaster of Canada, Columbia of New York, and UCLA.
Last season, Cheng Li, an MC business major, returned home to Clinton as the No. 1 men's singles player in the nation. While he lost that crown to a Texas Wesleyan standout Zhedi Bai on Saturday, Li was delighted to see the MC comeback result in its first championship.
Other titles went to Texas Wesleyan for men's singles, California for women's singles, and Princeton for its women's team that included U.S. Olympic stars like Ariel Hsing and Erica Wu. Cal's Lily Zhang, the women's singles champ, played on the U.S. Olympic team, and hopes to be on the squad for the 2016 games in Rio.
While only a sparse crowd was on hand for the final games as many players headed to airports for trips back to their campuses, those that stayed saw fantastic contests with long volleys, amazing spins, slams and great defensive play.
"Credit goes to our fantastic group of players who practiced for countless hours at Alumni Gym and traveled to tournaments around the nation,'' said Andy Kanengiser, the MC table tennis sponsor."We hope the entire MC family welcomes them at an exhibition at Alumni Gym Wednesday night starting at 6 p.m.''
New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz and a three-time Caribbean champion Robert Roberts will challenge the nation's No. 1 MC team.
Shortz is a table tennis fanatic who's played the Olympic sport in 48 states (except for Mississippi and Hawaii) and in more than two dozen countries. Will's the owner of the Westchester Table Tennis Center in New York and National Public Radio Puzzlemaster with a show every Sunday morning. A reception for the New Yorkers will be at the Leland Speed Library at 5 p.m. on April 15. The events are free and open to the public.
The 2015 TMS College Table Tennis Championships is hosted by the National Collegiate Table Tennis Association and the Visit Eau Claire and is one of the premier table tennis tournaments in North America featuring 6 events: Men’s and Women’s Singles and Doubles, and Men’s/Coed Teams, Women’s Teams. The event is sponsored by TMS International, Double Fish, Joola and PepPod.