SAINT LEO, Fla. – The Saint Leo men's tennis team has added another 'first' to their resume this season as they head to their first-ever NCAA Championships Round of 16, and for senior captain Fons Verberne, the journey has been worth it.
"It has been a roller coaster with a lot of ups and downs," Verberne said of his four-year career. "It has been a privilege to be part of the teams down the years. It's amazing to see the transition over the four years from being a steady mid-conference team way below the powerhouses, like Barry, to improving every year by working with the right philosophy of improving and fighting for every point. Every year the results got better and better, and better players were interested in joining the team after seeing the possibilities."
Verberne is the only four-year player on Saint Leo's roster this season, and has experienced three-straight years of season ending at the hands of Barry. In his freshman season, the Lions went 16-7, and lost to Barry in the South Regional final, while in his sophomore season, Saint Leo failed to make regional play, and lost to Barry in the SSC tournament. Last year, the Lions were again thwarted by Barry in the South Regional finale after a 16-6 season. For the first time in his career, Verberne's season cannot be ended by Barry, as they were ousted in the South Regional 2 by Valdosta State.
However, despite the No. 1 seed in this season's South Regional 1 bracket, Saint Leo, the nation's No. 1 squad, was faced with some challenges.
After opening the tournament with a commanding 5-0 win over Benedict, Saint Leo then faced West Florida in the finale.
West Florida, the No. 5 seed in the South Region, who also happened to be the No. 6 team in the nation, came out firing, opening with a 2-1 lead after doubles, and expanded their lead to 4-2 after an Argos' win at No. 3 and No. 1 and a Saint Leo win at No. 2. From there, it was Saint Leo's bottom three flights that brought them back to life, before Guillaume Vanelven was able to take the third set at No. 5's and seal the match and a place in the final 16 for the Lions.
"The point of 2-4 down against West Florida and being on the side, injured, only able to support your teammates in the hope that my senior year and college career would be extended created a weird feeling," said Verberne, who has missed the last half of the season with an injury. "In my mind, I was thinking 'my whole career could be over in 15 to 20 min,' but the guys showed spirit and heart, and when it came down to Guillaume, I was confident. When you play with your teammates and have that common goal and family-feeling, you trust in each other. It was an incredible and unreal feeling when he won. Everyone saw what it meant for the guys to make our first-ever trip [to the round of 16]. We believed we could do it and that one common goal gave us the trip to Denver."
Saint Leo heads to Denver to take on Cameron University out of Oklahoma on Wednesday evening at 7 p.m. ET. Cameron advanced out the South Central Regional with a 5-1 win over St. Mary's (Texas). The Aggies are currently ranked No. 15 in the nation, and their No. 1 singles player, Dennis Merdan is nationally-ranked at No. 45.
Should Saint Leo make it past Cameron, the field before them contains 12 top-25 teams, as well as seven opponent's the Lions faced during the regular season. However, Armstrong State, the No. 2 team in the nation, is the only team of those seven that is on Saint Leo's half of the bracket. The quarterfinals through finals will be played at 3 p.m. ET., both at Metro State and Gates tennis center.
For more information on the Saint Leo men's tennis program, visit SaintLeoLions.com. Fans can also stay up-to-date on the latest Lions news by following Saint Leo Athletics on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.