Barry University bids to extend Division II dominance as NCAA R16 begins in Orlando
In the buildup to the 2023 NCAA Championships, set to be held at the USTA National Campus in Orlando from May 11-27, USTA.com will feature some of the nation's top teams from Divisions I, II and III in this 'Road to Orlando' series. In this installment, we spotlight the women's and men's tennis programs from Barry University. The Barry women are five-time defending DII champions, while the men have won the past three DII titles.
The NCAA Division II Tennis Championships have belonged to Barry University in recent years, with the women's and men's programs sweeping the trophies at past three events. The women's program enters this year's quarterfinals on an 86-match win streak that has seen them win five straight national titles.
After several years of continuity with an experienced roster, women's head coach Avi Kigel has maintained sky-high standards with a new-look team this season. After graduating five of his top eight players, the 2023 Sunshine State Conference Coach of the Year has led the Buccaneers to a 24-0 record as well as the SSC regular season and conference tournament titles.
"Everybody looks at 24-0, but we had a lot of battles and I'm very proud of the girls to fight and always find a way to win," Kigel said of the season so far. "It's not easy. We know that this team is good, but the last few years we had 'super teams.' This is a very different team. A lot of newer girls with less experience, I would say. So it's been a good battle and we keep getting better."
Barry cruised through the NCAA South Regional and into the quarterfinals with a pair of 4-0 wins, but they were twice pushed to 4-3 during the regular season and know more challenges await in Orlando. Adding to the degree of difficulty is the weight of expectation placed on each player, knowing the history they are part of as Barry Buccaneers.
"Being part of of Barry University women's tennis, it's a different pressure to keep the standard that we are used to and a tough road to get there," Kigel explained. "But I'm so proud of what they achieved, still undefeated and having a great chance to to hopefully defend our title.
"We always handle each year individually, but they need to know that they're coming to a championship team," he continued. "The standard is high, but it's not about winning. It just about the hard work, to keep fighting, to be part of the team. That's what we're really emphasizing; we're not talking too much about streaks and things like that.
"I told them that we will lose one day. I can guarantee that. We're just trying to maybe not have it happen this year," he added with a smile. "But if it happens, it happens. We will lose at some point. So don't worry about it. Just worry about getting better and and just keep fighting for each match that you're playing."
The Barry men's team is in a similar position with their three straight NCAA titles—though unlike the women's program, the core of their 2022 roster remained intact. At 21-5 this season, the Buccaneers take an eight-match winning run into Orlando.
"We always get the best version of the opponent," head coach Thomas Hipp said of the proverbial target on his team's back. "Once you've mastered that, then you're well prepared at the end. So as much as it occurs during the regular season, at the very end of the season, that's why we are so battle tested."
The Buccaneers entered NCAAs as SSC tournament champs after claiming a dramatic 4-3 win against Saint Leo in the final—a result that avenged a defeat to the Lions by the same score during the season. Barry again beat Saint Leo, this time 4-2, to advance from the NCAA South Regional and confirm their trip to the USTA National Campus for the Round of 16.
They joined Valdosta State in escaping a loaded South region that included five of top nine and seven of the top 20 teams in the ITA's most recent Division II rankings.
"We are setting up the season in a way that we are playing our best tennis at the end of the season," said Hipp, who noted that his deep roster allowed him to rest some players during the campaign. "With our conditioning, with our running, with our tennis and all that stuff, it's kind of set up that we're doing well at the end."
After a strong but unspectacular regular season, Hipp is happy to see his planning come to fruition in recent weeks.
"My team, what is nice is they really thrive in the postseason," said the second-year head coach, who previously starred for the Buccaneers as a player before serving as a graduate assistant and assistant coach from 2006-13. "So the regular season was so-so, I would say. We could have done a little bit better in certain occasions, but I think those guys are really into the postseason and they are thriving now and we're doing really well. So luckily that is working out."
With the Barry men's and women's programs now set to take center stage in Orlando, both teams are eager to step into the spotlight at the USTA National Campus. Both have fond memories at the Lake Nona site, though this will be the first time the Division II tournament is held at the home of American tennis.
"We love the USTA National Campus," said Kigel, who has led the women's program since 2009. "It's a great venue. You go there and you just feel the passion for tennis and it just makes you want to play. I'm so happy that it was moved over there, and I hope that we can show our level to everyone.
"We're Division II, but we feel that our level is as good as most DI schools. And if we can showcase that, there's nothing better that we can do. So we're very excited about Lake Nona and the USTA Campus, a great, great facility."
As well as this year's event being the first Division II tournament at the National Campus, it is also the first time in NCAA tennis history that all three divisions will compete for the men's and women's national titles at the same venue.
"This is the best way to end the season, just a big party of tennis, of high-level tennis," Kigel said of the occasion. "You can't get any better. You look left, you look right, and all you can see is just a great level of tennis. I think it will inspire everyone. And I think the level will be as good as it can be for all three divisions.
Read more at usta.com: USTA National Campus set to host historic combined NCAA Championships