NSU women’s tennis team finally overcomes rival Barry for first national championship

Natalie Espinal said “it felt like hell” – due to 95-degree heat in Friday’s national championship tennis match at Altamonte Springs.

But it turned out heavenly for Espinal and the rest of the Nova Southeastern University Sharks, who defeated local rival Barry, 4-2, to win the NCAA Division II title.

Barry had won the previous six national titles.

Entering Friday, NSU was 3-33 all-time against Barry, including 12 straight losses prior to the 2024 title match. NSU hadn’t beaten Barry since 2019.

In addition, the Sharks lost the doubles point on Friday, making their challenge even tougher.

“To lose the doubles point and win four of five singles matches against a team like Barry is amazing,” said NSU coach Doug Neagle, 51.

“This is surreal. I don’t even know how this feels except that it feels amazing.”

NSU has been building to this ever since Neagle took over in time for the 2017 season. The Sharks went just 9-9 that season, and Neagle then made an adjustment.

“I started doing my homework, bringing in great people who happen to be great tennis players,” Neagle said. “The results have organically happened.”

That’s especially true the past three years.

In 2022, NSU went 25-4, reaching the NCAA Final Four for the first time. They were eliminated 4-0 by Barry, and three of NSU’s four losses were to the Bucs.

Last year, NSU went 26-4, losing 4-1 to Barry in the NCAA final. Three of NSU’s four losses were to Barry.

This year, NSU went 27-4, setting a school record for wins for the third straight year. After going 0-3 to Barry in the regular season, the Sharks finally got revenge.

The Sharks, who had never had a 20-win season prior to Neagle’s arrival, are 78-12 over the past three years.

The leader of the team is Espinal, a 23-year-old from Honduras who plays No. 1 singles and No. 1 doubles. While most of her teammates are new to the program, this is Espinal’s sixth year at NSU, and she finishes her career with a national title and a Master’s degree in Finance.

“This is so exciting,” said Espinal, who beat Barry’s Alina Michalitsch, 6-2, 6-3, on Friday. “I’m happy and proud because I know how much this means to the girls and to the school.”

NSU’s Alexandra Weir, an Australian native who transferred in this season from Division I Texas-San Antonio, was an ITA South Regional champion this fall. However, she lost at No. 2 singles on Friday to Viktoriia Dema, 1-6, 6-3, 6-4.

At No. 3 singles, NSU got a win with Freya Davies, a crafty lefty who transferred in from Bath University in England. She beat Ailen Crespo, 6-0, 6-1.

The No. 4 singles match went unfinished, but NSU came through at No. 5 and at No. 6 to win the coveted title.

At No. 5, Sofia Shing, a New Zealand native who transferred in from Division II Georgia College; defeated Angela Leweurs, 6-3, 6-3.

“Sofia hits a heavy ball,” Neagle said. “She was Georgia College’s No. 1 player.”

The clincher came at No. 6, where – who else – Ita Habekovic of Croatia outlasted Clara Versier, 1-6, 6-4, 6-4.

Ironically, Habekovic won the clinching match last year to lead Hillsborough a junior college national title.

“Her previous coach said she always steps up in big matches,” Neagle said, “and that’s exactly what happened.”

Other players who contributed to NSU’s national championship season included No. 4 singles player Lian

Benedejcic, a Slovenia native who transferred in from Division I Tulsa; No. 2 doubles player; Julia Moraes, a Brazil native and a transfer from Division I Sacramento State; and freshman Patricie Kubikova, who is from the Czech Republic.

Neagle calls Benedejcic “a grinder.”

Moraes, Neagle said, has an all-around game and is “the nicest and most genuine person you will ever meet.”

Kubikova has great instincts for doubles, especially for her age, Neagle said.

In the end, Neagle’s strategy of finding nice people who also play great tennis prevailed, even though the heat threatened both teams.

“By the end of the second set,” Espinal said, “I said, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to do this. I felt like I was in hell. It was so hot.

“But I felt like we wanted it more than (Barry) did this time.”