In a match fitting to be billed as a championship, the College of Staten Island women's tennis squad came away with the coveted prize in the CUNYAC/Hospital for Special Surgery Women's Tennis Final via a thrilling, 5-4, win over Brooklyn College at the National Tennis Center in Flushing this evening.
No matter who won, the CUNYAC would have a new champion as the Hunter Hawks, the 13-time reigning champions, were eliminated by CSI in the semifinals. CSI last won a championship the year before Hunter began their streak in 1999. Brooklyn was looking for their first women's tennis championship in history. What ensued was a near four-and-a-half hour marathon, complete with a third set tiebreaker that would determine the outcome against the backdrop of a cold and blustery night sky in Queens.
Doubles play featured close competition at the top. At the third flight, it was a quick victory for 2012 Rookie of the Year Madiha Mulla
and teammate Nozima Toshpulatova
with an 8-0 victory for CSI. Second flight doubles featured a back and forth match between Brooklyn's three-time Player of the Year Yuliya Orkis with teammate Suraya Maenhout, a 2013 First Team All-Star, and fellow First-Team All-Star Jean Baak
with Sophia Varriano
from CSI. In the end, CSI would rally from 6-3 down to tie the score at 6-6, but Orkis and Maenhout would finish the match 8-6 to knot the final at one. First doubles would decide who had the edge going into singles play. There, the Bulldogs' duo of Ekaterina Mospanova and Maria Sanz, the 2013 Sportsmanship Award winner and a Second-Team All-Star weathered a comeback by Stoyko and Sabrina Bragerton-Nasert
, narrowly winning 8-6 to give Brooklyn a 2-1 lead heading into singles.
Beginning singles, BC wasted no time taking a big 3-1 lead as Orkis took the first flight 6-0, 6-0, over CSI's Sophia Varriano
. The lead was short-lived, however, as moments later, Second-Team All-Star Toshpulatova took No. 6 singles 6-0, 6-0 to bring the score to 3-2. One flight higher, CSI Second-Team All-Star Madiha Mulla
won 6-1, 5-0 after BC's Diana Beshta retired to tie it at three. First-Team All-Star Sabrina Bragerton-Nasert
won the match's third flight 6-3, 6-2 to give CSI a 4-3 advantage in need of one match. It was then the Bulldogs' turn to answer the call, as Ekaterina Mospanova won her match for Brooklyn at number two singles over Stoyko, 6-1, 6-0 to bring the match to 4-4 with the deciding match coming at fourth singles.
What a match it was between CSI's Baak and Brooklyn's Sanz. In the regular season the Dolphin was victorious in a very close 6-3, 6-7 (5-7), 10-8 match. The final match of the CUNYAC/HSS Championship would be no less suspenseful. After exchanging games back and forth, Baak was able to take the first set 6-4. Sanz was resilient as she stormed back to take a 4-1 lead in the second set that ended 6-3. Baak went up early 2-0 but after an injury timeout, Sanz tied up the set at five games apiece.
With all eyes on the match and a hush over the crowd that erupted with every score, the drama couldn't be heavier. Holding serve, Baak fell behind to Sanz, 15-40, before rallying to earn deuce and then scoring a pair of volley wins to take a 6-5 lead. Two straight aces by Sanz then seemed to swing momentum in BC's favor, but Baak had other plans. Down 40-love, Baak responded by scoring the next six points, sending the team to hysterics as it mobbed Baak, who scored the 6-4, 3-6, 7-5 win. In a fitting end to the marathon, Baak was lifted on to the shoulders of the team, an obvious choice for Most Valuable Player honors.
The win for CSI in the final is their fourth overall, their first since 1999, and the first for seventh-year head coach Paul Ricciardi, and it will clinch the team's first entry into the NCAA Tournament this spring.
"It's incredible," he said. "To see our team follow through to the very end, and to have this be a reality for us is overwhelming. I couldn't be prouder."
CSI took a 7-2 win over Brooklyn earlier this season, but the coach knew the second time around, on the CUNYAC's highest stage to boot, would be a different adventure.
"The entire match was give and take, back and forth, everything a Final should be," Ricciardi noted. "We have seven women on this squad who worked incredibly hard and really enjoyed playing tennis for CSI and when you have a team with a single goal in mind, you can achieve these kinds of results."
Of course, the Dolphins would not have gotten the opportunity to celebrate had it not been for Baak, stoic in the face what was arguably the biggest match of her career.
"Honestly, it was the toughest thing I've ever been through," she said. "I just kept thinking and hearing my teammates and I didn't want to let them down. It took so much effort and it was exhausting, but it's such an extraordinary feeling now."
When asked how she found the energy to come back from 40-love, Baak shrugged the comeback off.
"I kept hearing (coach) Paul telling me to focus and keep my tunnel vision, and that was all I was thinking out there. I just went in there saying I was going to win my match for my team and my school."
The Dolphins proved successful, and will now await a call from the NCAA, who will announce their national championship draw in late Spring. CSI will play a modified schedule this spring to prepare for the Championship, which kicks off May 9-11.
- Portions of this story courtesy of the CUNYAC