ATLAMONTE SPRINGS, Fla. -- Back and better, again.
That’s if Barry Buccaneer fans remember the school’s 2011 championship won on the same Sanlando Park courts that host Saturday’s 2014 national title match at 9 a.m. ET.
This time it’s the Buccaneers (27-1) against Armstrong Atlantic (28-1). Barry is pursuing its second national title while the Pirates are after their third consecutive title and ninth overall.The recent history between the schools is immense: Armstrong Atlantic has dispatched Barry in each of the past two NCAA tournaments -- the 2012 semifinals in Louisville, Kentucky, and the 2013 quarterfinals in Surprise, Arizona. The two teams played once during the 2013-14 regular season -- a 5-4 Barry victory on Feb. 23 at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.
“We had two very good years, but kind of came up a little bit short in nationals,” Barry head coach Avi Kigel said of the 2012 and '13 follow-up to '11’s national title. “We lost actually twice to Armstrong. You know, luckily, we’re finally back here. Good memories. But this team, none of them were here in 2011, so it’s a new experience for them. And hopefully we can make it a great one.”
The current Barry team is populated with underclassmen. The lineup that defeated Hawaii Pacific 5-1 in Friday’s semifinals included four sophomores, two freshmen and one junior.
“Very young,” said Kigel, newly crowned as the Intercollegiate Tennis Association’s NCAA Division II coach of the year and in his sixth season at Barry. “Everybody will be back next year so we will hope for another great year, but right now we’re just focused on [Saturday].”
“We’ve played a lot of matches,” sophomore Emma Onila said. “We’ve even played a lot of practice matches, because when it comes done down to the tough points, or when things aren’t really right, we know how to handle it. So it’s not a big surprise for us.”
Onila, Division II’s No. 7-ranked singles player, combines with junior Linda Fritschken on Division II’s No. 7-ranked doubles team. They contributed one of Barry’s two doubles victories against Hawaii Pacific on Friday, and Onila led 6-1, 2-0 at No. 1 singles before Hawaii Pacific’s No. 21-ranked Karen Ramirez retired due to injury.
Sophomore Elisabeth Abanda followed with a victory at No. 5. Sophomore Karina Goia’s victory at No. 2 clenched the match for Barry.
“It’s always a process,” Onila said. “With the training and the competition and all that. But when you’re involved with such a great team, all you want to do is do it for them and do it for yourself. At the end of the day I’m really proud of them and myself for working so hard and getting where we deserve to be.”
Pivotal to Barry’s growth process this season was that February clash with Armstrong Atlantic on Florida’s Gulf Coast. It was the first time the teams had met since the Pirates’ national quarterfinal victory and this time the Buccaneers were the ones splaying the last shots.
“That kind of showed us that we can really fight hard and stay together and really have a shot,” Kigel said. “So that was a good one for us. And from there, we actually got better and better.”
“It was more like a wake-up call for us because sometimes when you’re not so focused because you’re already in the nationals and all that, it kind of leaves you,” Onila said of last year’s early NCAA tournament exit. “So I think it was a big wake-up call for us for what we were missing at that time, and I think we’ve really improved on what we needed to improve on.”
With such a young lineup, comes a little extra monitoring and guidance.
“Oh, there’s a lot of guidance,” Kigel said with a grin. “We’re with them day in and day in. It’s teaching. It’s not even a lot about tennis, it’s just the mental side and the behavior and the team concept and staying together and the commitment. So there’s a lot of things that go on outside the forehand and backhand. It’s a non-stop job.”
In what could be an extra challenge, Canada, Germany, Romania, New Caledonia and Hungary all were represented in Barry’s semifinal starting lineup against Hawaii Pacific. But with this batch of Bucs, it’s all apparently seamless harmony.
“We have girls from all over the world, different nationalities, brought up differently,” Kigel said. “And they all come here for an education and to keep training hard, and, hopefully, to get a chance to win a national championship This group seems to really like one another and to stay together and really work hard for each other, which is great.”
“We are all very different personalities, but we come together and we have fun in a crazy way,” Onila said. “We get along and it’s a really good chemistry. I’m really happy to be with this team.”