LIU Tennis makes history in Brooklyn swan song
Headed to NCAA Tournament following third straight NEC title
First-year LIU-Brooklyn Head Women’s Tennis Coach Jan Griga knew that anything short of a third straight Northeast Conference title for the well-decorated squad he inherited last August would be considered a failure.
So he and the Blackbirds made it their mission during the final season of the squad’s tenure here in Downtown Brooklyn to complete an historic three-peat and get back to the NCAA Championship Tournament.
Mission accomplished! And then some.
Seniors Anna Grigoryan and Clemence Krug and junior Ana Leonte won their singles matches while junior Jennifer Gogova and senior Malin Leyson combined with Grigoryan and Leonte to sweep a pair of doubles showdowns, helping LIU to a 4-0 blanking of Fairleigh Dickinson Saturday afternoon at the Mercer County Tennis Center in West Windsor, N.J., completing a spotless weekend sweep of the NEC Championships.
As the tournament’s top seed, the Blackbirds knocked off neighborhood rival St. Francis Brooklyn, fourth-seeded Sacred Heart and FDU to increase their season-ending winning streak to nine in a row since opening the campaign with a 5-7 record.
The red-hot Blackbirds will now visit the University of Texas, ranked eighth in the entire nation, for Saturday’s opening-round NCAA Tournament match in Austin, Texas.
A stunning upset of the Longhorns would send LIU into a second-round match against either Rice or Texas A&M on Sunday.
“I could not be more proud of this team for what they have accomplished and I could not be more thankful to have had a chance to coach these talented young ladies,” Griga told the Eagle via e-mail Tuesday night as his team prepared to take on one of the nation’s elite tennis programs.
“Stepping up to the head coaching position this year was somewhat of a dream come true for me and something I really, really wanted,” added Griga, who served as a volunteer assistant coach on the previous two championship squads before replacing former head man Anthony Davison.
The promotion came with plenty of pressure, as well.
With a star-studded roster, a top preseason ranking and the knowledge that the tennis program would be shifted to the LIU Post campus beginning this coming fall, as per the school’s One LIU initiative announced last October, Griga knew the stakes were higher than usual in 2019.
“Given the success we’ve had in the previous two seasons, it was absolutely crucial for me to do well at the helm in my first year,” he ceded.
“While having the same team returning with even more experience was a definite advantage, the same could not be said of the pressure and the naturally high expectations placed on our shoulders this year.”
Ironically, Griga credited the team’s worst stretch of the season — a three-game skid against non-conference foes Columbia, Lynn University and Florida Atlantic back mid-March — for the Blackbirds’ late-season push to yet another title.
“Although we lost those matches, I believe that this was the turning point for us,” he said. “Whether we became tougher by facing this level of opposition, or we were forced to re-establish our sense of humility, realizing that previous successes don’t guarantee continued success, doesn’t really matter.
“What does matter is that we hit the ground running, working harder than ever to win the next nine straight matches, rain or shine, to eventually clinch our record third NEC title for a moment we will never forget.”
That moment also came with the bittersweet realization that the Blackbirds had already played their final match here in Brooklyn with a hard-fought 4-3 victory over Villanova on March 22.
That triumph, which was fittingly clinched by Grigoryan out of the No. 1 singles spot on Senior Day, ended LIU’s longest slide of the campaign and prompted their current unbeaten run, which has seen the team win 25 consecutive sets entering the weekend showdown with the Longhorns.
“Facing Texas will be tough of course,” Grigas said of what could be the Blackbirds’ final match ever as a Brooklyn-based program.
“They are No. 8 in the country currently, but the key message that [Assistant Coach Pavlos Stephanides] and I keep reiterating to the team is that we go out and we play free. We are the obvious underdogs and there can be real value in having nothing to lose.”
Especially when they began this pressure-cooker campaign with seemingly everything on the line.
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