SURPRISE, Ariz. – El Presidente laid down the law once again, and Barry University men’s tennis team became a national champion Saturday.
“Honestly, I can’t believe what just happened,” said Leo Vivas, otherwise known as, “El Presidente,” after becoming the hero in a title match that shifted from excitement-on-the-brink to gloom-and-doom to outright euphoria.
In a match that was as dramatic as they come, No. 1 Barry outlasted No. 2 Armstrong Atlantic in a 5-4 thriller to secure the program’s second NCAA Division II National Championship. It marked the university athletic program’s 10th national title in school history.
The Buccaneers (29-0) ran the table, becoming the first men’s tennis team to go unbeaten in school history. The Bucs are also the first team in any sport at Barry University to ever have an unblemished record.
“This is a Cinderella story as I thought of it in the beginning, and I was hoping it would come to an end this way. And it actually has,” longtime Bucs coach George Samuel said. “By far, this is the best year that I’ve ever had in my 23 years as far as the success went throughout the year.”
It didn’t come without its lion’s share of drama on the largest stage.
Barry’s Romain Costamagna and Vivas shredded Jaan Kononov and Matus Mydla, 8-1, at No. 3 doubles for the match’s first point. But the other two doubles matches were laced with razor-sharp intensity and wire-to-wire intrigue.
Despite trailing, 5-4, at the top doubles flight, No. 2-ranked Marco Mokrzycki and Fabian Groetsch beat No. 1-ranked Daniel Regan and Georgi Rumenov, 9-8 (7-1), in a back-and-forth match filled with its share of nerve-testing points. Tied 6-6 with Groetsch serving, the Bucs warded off five break points and held serve in a game that lasted roughly 10 minutes to take a 7-6 lead. Then with Regan serving and the Bucs sitting on match point, Rumenov’s play at the net tied the match at 7-7.
Mokrzycki held serve to bump the Buccaneers up, 8-7. But Rumenov responded again with his serve to send the No. 1 pairs match into a tiebreaker. That’s where the Bucs ran away with it, winning seven of the next eight points to put Barry ahead, 2-0.
Mokrzycki's doubles triumph broke assistant coach Thomas Hipp's seven-year school record for most pairs victories. Mokrzycki now is alone at the top with 79 doubles wins in his four-year Buccaneer career.
At No. 2 doubles, it was more of the same. Trailing 7-6, Barry’s No. 19-ranked Max Wimmer and Ollie Lemaitre responded with their backs to the wall against No. 5-ranked Sven Lalic and Pedro Scocuglia to win 9-8 (7-5). Down 6-3 in the tie breaker, the Bucs fought off three straight match points to tie it at 6-6 in the final game. After Lalic and Scocuglia nabbed the next point to move ahead, 7-6, for its fourth match point, Lemaitre and Wimmer won the next three points to secure the match and sweep the doubles.
Ahead 3-0 after doubles, Barry was in position to run away with this title against the nation’s toughest opponent on the other side of the net. But that’s when it got interesting, and the momentum changed in a hurry.
Eleventh-ranked Regan beat 23rd-ranked Groetsch, who battled the flu for the past four days, 6-1, 6-3, at No. 3 singles, cutting the Bucs lead to 3-1. Meanwhile, Barry had dropped a set in four other singles matches.
Seeking his first postseason victory and the first in a month and five days, Costamagna was money in a 6-4, 6-3 win over the 16th-ranked Lalic at No. 4 singles. But even that point didn’t come without a little adversity.
Costamagna led 3-0 in the first set before dropping the next three games to tie it at 3-3. But the outspoken junior Frenchmen lifted his game to another level to close out the first set by winning three of the last four. Costamagna led 3-2 in the second set before breaking Lalic’s serve to take a two-game cushion. After each held serve the next games, Costamagna served for the match, securing the Bucs’ fourth point.
“I told everyone, I want to finish in the finals,” said Costamagna, who endured seven straight unfinished matches before delivering a clutch victory when the Bucs needed it most. “I play to win. It’s unbelievable. Since we arrived in August, we wanted to win the national championship. It was a good day to play a good match.”
Leading 4-1, needing one more match to secure the title, Armstrong (27-2) turned up its tennis again. Pablo Gor defeated Lemaitre, 6-3, 6-4, at No. 6 singles, bringing the Pirates within two. Yet the Bucs had three more matches to secure one point.
Easier said than done.
Leading 3-0 in the first set at No. 1 singles, No. 4-ranked Mokrzycki had break point opportunities with a chance to take a 4-0 lead on No. 5-ranked Mydla, but the Pirates top player answered the challenge by winning the game. Up 5-2 with a chance to close out the first set, Mokrzycki was within two points of breaking Mydla, but the Bucs German senior couldn’t convert. Trailing 5-3, Mydla broke Mokrzycki before winning the ensuing game to tie the set at 5-5. Mokrzycki served his way back to a 6-5 lead, but Mydla held serve again to send it to a tiebreaker. Mokrzycki confessed he “played poorly” in the tiebreaker, falling 7-2, before eventually dropping the second set, 6-1. That pulled the Pirates within a point of the Buccaneers, 4-3.
At No. 2 singles, the 26th-ranked Wimmer led No. 1-ranked Rumenov, 5-3, and had worked his way to set point, but squandered the opportunity and eventually dropped the set. Rumenov went on to win, 7-6 (8-6), 6-2, to tie the match at 4-4.
It all came down to No. 5 singles, where Vivas dropped the first set to 29th-ranked Scocuglia, 6-3, before winning the second in comeback fashion, 6-4. Trailing 4-1 in the decisive set, as he did in the second, Vivas found his back against the wall, knowing the title rested on his shoulders.
“I was 4-1 down in the third, and things were looking bad,” Vivas said. “I was looking through a tunnel. It was all dark.”
But El Presidente battled, winning the next three games to tie it at 4-4.
“What we’ve seen is the support system that kicked in at that time off of just that one court that was in play,” Samuel said. “I mean, we had all of our coaches out there, every one of them out there, rooting and pushing and encouraging. The team was lined up there at the fence, and there wasn’t the slightest drop of momentum for the support there. It just felt good. It felt like it could happen.”
Scocuglia served his way to a 5-4 lead before Vivas matched it with a service win to tie it at 5-5. Vivas broke Scocuglia to take a 6-5 lead, and then served for the match without dropping a point to clinch the national title for the Buccaneers.
“I saw my team there, I saw everyone there,” Vivas said. “It was just like, ‘This is your last match. Just give it everything you have.’ Everything worked out well. I honestly didn’t even think about the score. I just played tennis.”
Now the Buccaneers have glossy hardware and can call themselves champions.
“It was a goal,” Costamagna said. “Now we did it. It’s a big step in history for Barry University.”