Coming so close to reaching the NCAA Sweet Sixteen in Surprise, Arizona, was the storyline coming out of 2015 for the women’s tennis program. In 2015, the Saints took their Cinderella story into the NCAA Regionals as they were faced with the overwhelming task of having to knock off eventual national champions, and national powerhouse Armstrong State University. The Saints saw their season end with a 5-0 loss to Armstrong, and just like that the clock had struck midnight.
Enter 2016 when the women’s tennis program has welcomed a change of the guard in NCAA Division II tennis, and placed every team in the Southeast Region on notice. “(Assistant Coach Rodrigo Puebla) pushed us a lot in the fall and the start of spring, and we felt good about starting the matches,” said junior transfer Kelly Burge. The Saints began their 2016 season falling to Division I school UNF 0-7, but since that meeting the Saints have emerged as a legitimate threat to anyone who possesses a national ranking in Division II. In the Saints seven match win streak, they have knocked off five top 40 teams including PBC foe No. 12 Georgia College in Milledgeville, Georgia. But the biggest of the victories for the Saints didn’t come until Feb. 27 on their home court in St. Augustine.
Heading into their match against visiting No. 3 Saint Leo, the Saints, while ranked No. 16, had odds stacked against them. Prior to joining the NCAA from NAIA in 2007 the Saints have failed to knock off a team ranked as high as Saint Leo. In the underdog role, the Saints rather than hiding, embraced the challenge and took a huge early lead with 2 of 3 in doubles. Sophomore Mary Jo Nanti and Junior transfer Kelly Burge continued their flawless doubles play taking their match 8-3.
The Saints would go on to take 3 of 5 in singles to knock off Saint Leo clinching the biggest upset for the Saints since their NCAA transfer. Senior Thaisa Pereira embraced her role as the senior and leader on this young squad by winning her match 6-3. 7-5, “Since the beginning of the year, we have put our hearts into it and it is an awesome feeling to see all our hard work paying off,” said Pereira.
“When we play, we fight all together,” said Nanti. “These matches are proof.”
The Saints won’t have much time to bask in the upset as they enter conference play against some of the nation’s most elite programs. But the Saints are ready. “The fight and determination the girls have on and off the court is why I love this team,” said Burge.
Heading into March the Saints will travel to play No. 7 Nova Southeastern and No. 5 Lynn University with a matchup against national powerhouse, and defending national champ Armstrong State hovering over the Saints. “I am really excited to see what else we can do,” said Pereira.
The Saints return to action Thursday, March 3, at the Flagler College Tennis Center in a Peach Belt Conference matchup against USC Aiken.