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Denise Maloof | | May 14, 2014

Maloof: Saint Leo lives on

  The Lions also give the Seasiders (25-1) their first loss of their 2014 campaign.

ALTAMONTE SPRINGS, Fla. -- When Saint Leo congregated for a group scream to celebrate its Round of 16 upset of BYU-Hawaii on Wednesday, a louder scream interrupted them.

Sanlando Park’s lightning detection system short-circuited external exuberance, sending the Lions and other teams in this week’s 2014 NCAA Division II Women’s Tennis Championships scurrying for cover a second time on Wednesday.

It was a fitting end to a crackling match -- a six-hour marathon punctuated by momentum see-saws and a significant intrusion by Mother Nature. In the end. the Lions (21-5) prevailed 5-4 against BYU-Hawaii (26-1). They’ll meet No. 12 California (Pa.) in Thursday’s quarterfinals.

Saint Leo clinched the match on Adrianna Daszkiewicz’s 2-6, 7-6 (7-3), 6-2 victory versus BYU-Hawaii’s Jin Jin Han at No. 6 singles. Afterward, the celebratory screaming likely continued somewhere safe, while lightning struck and rain poured.

“I was very happy because I was down 1-6, 2-5,” Daszkiewicz said, describing the psyche job she did on herself. “So at some point I thought, ‘I’m going to lose this.’ Then I was like, ‘oh, maybe I should win one more game, two more games.’ I didn’t think about the score anymore.  I was like, ‘you have to do it.’ And I’m a senior and I really wanted to do it for my team, I didn’t want to it be my last match. So yeah, I’m glad I won.”

Aside from Wednesday’s theatrics -- weather-wise and on-court -- it’s been an epic journey for St. Leo. This bunch of Lions, No. 6 in the latest Intercollegiate Tennis Association rankings, is the first St. Leo women’s team to compete at the national level of an NCAA tournament.

“I would never think we would make nationals,” Daszkiewicz said. “My first year, we didn’t even make regionals. So now when we make nationals, I’m very proud of my team.”

And they had to fight a phalanx to do it, including beating No. 8-ranked Lynn in the Sunshine State Conference tournament semifinal, losing to top-ranked Barry in the conference tournament final, then beating Lynn again in the South Region II finals to make the Round of 16. BYU-Hawaii, No. 3 in the ITA rankings, was the toughest assignment yet.

“It’s so hard,” Saint Leo acting head coach Sarah Summerfield said. “We had to beat Lynn just to get here. We play in the most difficult conference.”

On Wednesday, the Lions played in the most difficult of marathons. First serve came at 8 a.m.. Daszkiewicz’s match point was played at 2:10 p.m.

Saint Leo began the day with two doubles wins -- Laura Kemkes and Anastasia Wagner winning 8-0 at No. 2, and Maria Benkirane and Daszkiewicz winning 8-0 at No. 3. BYU-Hawaii’s Nannan Zhang and Min Liu -- Division II’s No. 2-ranked doubles team -- salvaged a 8-2 victory at No. 1 doubles.

Moving to singles, the BYU-Hawaii Seasiders -- defending Division II runner-ups -- gained ground. Zhang, ranked No. 4 in Division II singles, beat Saint Leo’s Coralie Pesenti 6-2, 60 at No. 1. Victories at No. 5 and No. 4, respectively, propelled BYU-Hawaii to a 4-2 lead. Alexandra Ulbrichtov beat Saint Leo’s Paula Montoya 6-1, 6-1 at No 5, and her teammate, Marietta Tuionetoa, beat Saint Leo’s Maria Benkirane at No. 4.

Then Sanlando Park’s lightning siren wailed during the noon hour, with No. 2, No. 3 and No. 6 singles far from decided. An hour delay ensued, with teams quarantined in their vans for safety. In Saint Leo’s van, Summerfield attacked her team’s collective nervousness as they nibbled snacks and rehydrated.

“I told them, ‘just play your matches, concentrate on winning your points,’” she said. “And that’s what they did.”

Daszkiewicz led the way. Down 1-6 and 2-5 after the delay, she admitted qualms to Summerfield between points.

“I was like, ‘Sarah, I’m so nervous, I don’t know what to do,”  Daszkiewicz said. “And she said, ‘just play for yourself.’ So I decided to play for myself. I aways play for myself, but you’re on a team, you play for the team as well. So I played for the team. And I saw [teammate] Laura [Kemkes] beside me -- she’s one of the seniors -- and I said, ‘let’s win it for the seniors.’ Today is a senior day for me.”

As Daszkiewicz battled back against Han, Wagner bounced back at No. 3 singles, beating BYU-Hawaii’s Marika Kobayaski 6-1, 3-6, 7-5. Daszkiewicz’s senior comrade, Kemkes, won at No. 2 by a 7-5, 5-7, 6-2 score over BYU’s Liu. Players and coaches from both teams congregated about the No. 6 court, and Daszkiewicz recalled thinking how she and Kemkes had helped build the women’s tennis program at St. Leo.

Another psyche job that worked.

“To be honest, I got to St. Leo three and a half years ago,” Daszkiewicz said. “Me and Laura. I mean, the team wasn’t very good at the beginning. We were probably two of the best players and now we’re not the best anymore. All of girls are very good, from all over the world, and it’s been great, honestly.”