MIAMI SHORES, Fla. – Barry University men’s tennis team will begin defense of its NCAA Division II National Championship when the Buccaneers open the season Tuesday at home.
Barry, which went went 29-0 to win its second national title a year ago, hosts Florida Tech at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday. It is the first of four straight home matches through Sunday to begin the 2014 campaign.
“For me, every year is a new year,” Bucs two-time National Coach of the Year George Samuel said. “I’ve been wanting to win the national championship from the first year I worked at Barry, and there were so many close ones that didn’t come through that I wouldn’t say I felt cheated about them, but it just seems we were robbed of not taking those titles when we really had the chance. So winning the past two of them in 2010 and ’13, I’m trying to catch up in what I felt we worked hard for for a lot of years. Winning those two titles doesn’t mean that’s the end for me, that I’m satisfied. As long as I am head coach at this university, I want to try to win as many as possible for Barry University, for my own pride myself and also to give these guys the challenge of winning it and also the benefits that come along with it. It’s a very special thing that I don’t think very many coaches can experience, and I think we can do it many more times if we just keep trying.”
The Buccaneers return three seniors in Ollie Lemaitre, Leo Vivas and Romain Costamagna. All of them earned Second-Team Sunshine State Conference honors a year ago. Lemaitre went 12-1 in singles and 19-7 in doubles last season. Vivas was 16-1 in singles and 23-2 in doubles. Costamagna was 14-1 in singles and 19-7 in doubles. Vivas and Costamagna were 14-2 in doubles when paired as partners.
“Those three guys are going to be a key factor,” Samuel said. “The more we are out here, the better we feel with the strength and with the depth of the team.”
That depth starts with Junior Fabian Groetsch, a First-Team All-American in doubles and second-team all-conference pick. He was 13-5 in singles and 23-3 in doubles. Junior Kevin Sielmann and sophomore Renato Lombardi were among the top eight in the rotation at the NCAA Championships. Sielmann had an 11-2 singles record and 4-1 doubles mark a year ago. Lombardi was 11-6 in singles and 6-2 in doubles.
Sophomore Eduardo Alfonzo was 7-1 in singles and 3-0 in doubles. He, redshirt returner Franco Echenique and newcomers Ahmed Triki, Nico Dreer and Austin Cruz will all challenge for a spot in the rotation.
“The players on the roster … everyone can play. It’s the same thing as last year,” Costamagna said. “Ahmed has a lot of experience. He’s played a lot of good tournaments, and he’s really hungry to play. Nico is a good newcomer, also. All of the new players saw in our eyes we want to win again. Now we know all of the work, how hard we have to work to win. So we just have to give it our best and regret nothing at the end.
“It’s exciting because last year we won, so we can play to defend the title. We are really looking forward to defend the title. We know it’s not going to be easy. Everyone is ready. We’ve worked really hard. It’s going to be a good year.”
The Buccaneers have another formidable schedule this year. In the third week of the season, the Bucs meet NCAA runner-up and No. 2-ranked Armstrong Atlantic, the 2012 national champs whom Barry beat, 5-4, to win last year’s championship. Barry will play the Pirates on Feb. 23 at a neutral site in Bradenton, Fla.
Following a Feb. 27 match at home against No. 20 Georgia Regents University, formerly Augusta State, the Buccaneers travel to Southern California for three matches against No. 12 Azusa Pacific, No. 13 Fresno Pacific and No. 14 UC-San Diego in consecutive days March 5-7. Barry will host No. 3 West Florida and perennial NAIA national power Auburn Montgomery March 11 and 13. The Bucs also host No. 5 Hawai’I Pacific March 22, and will play at NCAA Division I Central Florida March 30.
“I want to show them I’ve improved here and what I’ve learned and all the experience I’ve got here,” said Vivas, who transferred to Barry after one season at UCF. “I think the transfer I did was one of the best decisions I’ve made so far with my tennis career. It’s made me experience things here that I would never experience over there. So I’m super pumped, super excited to represent Barry at my former school.”
The Bucs will finish the regular season in a home match against No. 4 Lynn, their Sunshine State Conference rival. After a three-week break, Barry will compete in the SSC Championships in Winter Park, Fla.
“Every year I schedule maximum matches for one thing. I try to put the best competition that we can possibly get within our Division, and hopefully a few from Division I that will play us. We play a lot of matches consecutively, some three and four in a row. This is what I always believe in as an important factor because that’s what it takes to win championships – three or four in a row, without giving in or tiring out. We’ve got some fairly strong ones right from the get-go in the beginning of the season, and it continues to build as we go along.”
“Every one of those matches will give us a run for the money,” Samuel said. “This is what it takes to compete day after day, and to not slack off and to get fitter and fitter by doing this. So I think the schedule builds.”
Barry is built on different dynamics this year, void of heavy hitters and All-Americans Marco Mokrzycki and Max Wimmer. Wimmer will serve as a graduate assistant coach this year.
“It’s not all about the power. It is nice to have,” Samuel said, “but there are guys who are steady in their tennis games.”
Sielmann is a power player, but much of the lineup is filled with control players.
“What I like is the returners that are here, they’re excited,” Samuel said. “They really want to win it again, and it’s not like they’re satisfied, either. They’re seniors, so it’s not like, ‘We won it in our freshmen year. We can win it again some time.’ There is no other time. It’s either they win it this year or that’s it, and I think they would look back and didn’t give it their best and say, ‘Why didn’t I try a little harder? We had the team.’ And they know that, and I’m happy to see the intensity they have on the practice courts so far even though it’s early.
“Even though some of the guys in the top eight didn’t play in the nationals last year, they’re now here and they’re eligible to play. So they’ve seen a national championship in the making, too. So even the ones that weren’t in the top eight, they know what it takes to win one of them.
“We also have the confidence of being national champions, and I think that holds a lot of weight. When you have a good reputation from year to year, and you’ve beaten these teams I think that carries a lot weight, also for our success. “
With new personnel on the roster and coaching staff in place, this year’s team had an adjustment period in the fall. Yet the drive to succeed never wavered.
“I think it was difficult at first, we didn’t have an assistant coach at the beginning,” Costamagna said. “We have Fred (Bonal), and we worked with him last year. Now Thomas (Hipp) is (gone). We have to turn the page. Fred gave us a chance. Every day we won last year with him.”
Bonal was officially named assistant coach in November.
“We know that everyone wants to beat us. We have to play it match by match. We can’t say right now we want to be undefeated. We’re going to take it match by match, try to win the most matches in the region. Like last year, we aren’t looking too much (ahead).”
For Costamagna, Vivas and Lemaitre, this is the last chapter.
“We want to win again,” Costamagna said. “We want to finish on a good page.”