Saint Leo has a good women’s tennis team. But when the sixth-ranked Lions (20-5 at the time) entered the NCAA Division II Tennis Championships last month, they faced a much better one.
Headed into their first-round match-up, the Brigham Young University-Hawaii Seasiders were undefeated in the 2014 season. And while they were ranked just third in the tournament, losing to anyone was a rarity: In the past 16 seasons, the team had been defeated just nine times.
After facing the Lions, though, they now have 10 losses.
Saint Leo upset BYU-Hawaii 5-4 in a match that lasted more than six hours. Following that victory, the Lions toppled the 12th-ranked California University of Pennsylvania Vulcans to advance to the semifinals.
It was the first time the Lions reached the Final Four and their first trip to the national tournament, as well. Saint Leo’s run ended after a loss to second-ranked Armstrong Atlantic State University. Still, acting head coach Sarah Summerfield is proud of the team’s accomplishments.
“Obviously, I was thrilled,” Summerfield said. “The way we performed at the end of the year, it was spectacular. It was the best tennis I’ve seen them play all year.”
While defeating the Seasiders was the highlight of the year, Summerfield said it wasn’t the only big match the team won during their memorable season. Avenging an earlier loss to Lynn University, one of the top teams in the competitive Sunshine State Conference, Saint Leo defeated the Fighting Knights in the conference semifinals and again in the second round of the national tournament.
The conference victory against Lynn came down to a final singles match — college tennis competitions are determined by counting victories in both doubles and singles play in a best-of-nine format — and it was junior Paula Montoya who came through with the deciding win.
Montoya, who hails from Venezuela, said that her country’s tennis play is marked by a combination of consistency and aggression, and she used both to secure the win for her team.
“In the beginning it was consistency. I played the ball so she was getting tired,” Montoya said. “But then in the second set she got aggressive and I got kind of defensive, so I almost lost that second set. It was 5-2 (in favor of her opponent) and I got my confidence back and I was able to play my aggressive game.”
The Lions’ success this season will help juniors like Montoya prepare for a larger leadership role next year, she said. And her coach agrees, noting that a regular challenge for sports teams is replacing veteran leadership.
But Summerfield thinks that the current team set a standard that the team next year will be eager to match.
“I believe that they’re going to want to do just as well or better than we did this year,” she said. “I definitely think that the new seniors have to step it up, and I know they’re going to do it because they know what it feels like to get to the Final Four, they know what it takes and I know they’re going to be up for the challenge.”
Part of that challenge will be to adapt to a new head coach.
While Summerfield will be a graduate assistant coach for Saint Leo, a permanent coach will be chosen to lead the team going forward.
Summerfield said she had a great experience as head coach, and believes taking a team to the Final Four will serve as a nice highlight on her coaching resume.
She plans to pursue head coaching opportunities in the future.
The run to the Final Four also will remain a highlight of Saint Leo’s tennis resume. While Montoya said she’s already starting her training program for next season and believes the team can improve its fitness to be better prepared for grueling matches, she acknowledges the accomplishment that puts this year’s women’s tennis team in the school’s record books, and the work that went into attaining that success.
“It’s amazing because we’ve been playing and training for that goal,” she said. “We’re ranked No. 3 now and that’s amazing. That’s the first time we’ve been ranked that high.
Published June 4, 2014