'Strong' to Finish, Bucs' Season Ends in NCAA Semis

'Strong' to Finish, Bucs' Season Ends in NCAA Semis
There were plenty of high-fives to go around this year in Barry's run to the NCAA semifinals. Photo by Bridget Lyons

LOUISVILLE -- All good things must come to an end.

Friday, that something good that has been the talk of Buccaneer Tennis Center all year long saw its last day. Only it wasn't in Miami Shores. The final chapter ended in Kentucky, where No. 2 Barry University's women's team battled to the end of a 5-2 loss to No. 3 Armstrong Atlantic in the NCAA Division II semifinals at Top Gun Tennis Academy.

It ended a run of 26 straight wins, and capped a season with so many highs for coach Avi Kigel and his women's team.

One of the most decorated at Barry, this year's team found itself in a 3-0 hole after dropping each of the doubles matches. But despite having to play against six ranked singles players, the Buccaneers nearly pulled off an impressive comeback.

No. 12 Cristina Valladares dropped her No. 1 singles match, 6-2, 6-0 to No. 6 Barbora Krtickova, putting the Buccaneers in a 4-0 hole. But Olivia Matuszak, a fighter whose forehand form is pure and pinpoint, knocked off No. 20 Kathleen Henry in dominant fashion, 6-2, 6-1, to get the Bucs on the board.

Julie Stas, whose Belguim resolve as the season wore on grew increasingly in her commitment to the team and willingness to win. She labored through a quarterfinal match a day earlier only to turn around and do it again with inspiring emotional tennis. Ranked 46th in the country, Stas outbattled No. 17 Olga Kalodzitsa, 6-3, 6-4.

That pulled the Bucs within 4-2.

Mona Mansour trailed 3-2 in the first set of her No. 5 match with No. 21 Marlen Hacke only to storm back and claim the first set, 6-3. She went up 3-1 with a break in the second set before settling for a 4-4 unfinished match.

No. 15 Linda Fritschken romped to a 6-1 opening-set win over No. 7 Aleksndra Filipovski. Fritschken, the ITA South Region Rookie of the Year, fell by the same score in the second set to tie the match at 1-1. She found herself up 2-1 in the third set before Filipovski tied it at 3-3. The match ended unfinished with Fritschken trailing 4-3 in the third.

Caroline Wendling, who fought brilliantly throughout her four-year career, took a 4-3 opening-set lead over No. 30 Clara Perez only to lose the set, 7-5. Wendling trailed 3-0 in the second set, but battled back by winning the next two games. Perez went ahead only to have the Bucs' senior from Grasse, France pull out another game. But Perez put the match away, ending the Buccaneers' season.

Barry's bid to repeat as NCAA champs came up short in what might have been the closest 5-2 loss in national tournament history. Especially considering the Bucs trailed 4-0. Yet timing is everything in tennis -- espeically when it comes to closing out matches, and the Buccaneers didn't have it on their side on this day.

Yet there were many sunny days for this Buccaneers team. In fact, they've built a stable foundation -- orchestrated by Kigel four years ago. It was a program that was aided by the signing of Wendling, the only four-year recruit in last year's ITA National Coach of the Year's tenure, and Stas, the charismatic Belgian who epitomized the will to win as the stakes got higher. Now the two depart, having won a national title last year.

"They're on their way out, and I've seen them grow since I've been involved with Barry," Buccaneers assistant coach Maria Lopez said. "They came as little girls and now they're leaving as women, leaving the program after making a difference and creating a culture for the team."

What a culture it's been.