Freshman Ingrid Neel has three more years as a Florida Gator to look forward to, but she’ll be hard pressed to top the moment she experienced last night.
Namely, her teammates charging toward her as she clinched the national championship.
Neel’s hard fought 5-7, 6-3, 6-2 win over Stanford’s Taylor Davidson secured the Gator women’s tennis team’s seventh national championship in program history- all since 1992, and the fourth they’ve won at the expense of the Cardinal- and the third in the last seven years. To put that in perspective, no other Gator program has more than four. It also marks the 37th national title for Florida overall across all sports, and the first under new athletic director Scott Stricklin.
Part of what made this win so sweet was that it came against the unquestioned queens of the sport. Stanford boasts an NCAA leading 18 national titles in women’s tennis, the most recent of which came last year after dispatching Florida in the Sweet 16. Making things even sweeter still, former Gator stars Joanna Mather and Lauren Embree were on hand to witness it all- and then lead the celebration, donning the championship hats and shirts with the current players and dumping ice water on head coach Roland Thornquist’s head. And the icing on the cake? The Gators won this national title on the home courts of archrival Georgia.
Florida controlled this match from the start, claiming wins at the first and third doubles flights to grab the doubles point and an early 1-0 lead. Senior Kourtney Keegan then ended her Gator career in grand style by blanking Stanford’s Emma Higuchi at sixth singles, shattering Higuchi’s 22 match winning streak and putting Florida up 2-0. And when Belinda Woolcock got through taking apart Caroline Doyle at the top singles slot, the Gators were just one point away from the title.
But Stanford has long been a thorn in Florida’s side- the Cardinal ended the Gators’ 2010, 2013 and 2016 seasons in the NCAA Tournament- and they continued that pattern by turning the tide of this match around completely. Florida’s Brooke Austin got broken on match, and thus championship, point, by Emily Arbuthnott, who then forced a third set and removed the Cardinal from the fringe of defeat. Melissa Lord then defeated Josie Kuhlman at second singles to bring the match to 3-1, which suddenly put the pressure back on Florida. And that pressure only mounted further when Neel’s 3-0 third set lead shrunk to 3-2 after she got broken.
Despite still being up 3-2 in the third set, things weren’t looking particularly bright for Neel at that moment. Davidson, a battle tested senior, was the one who clinched the Cardinal’s 4-3 win over Ohio State in the semifinal in a third set tiebreaker after winning a minute and a half long rally on match point. And her break of Neel seemed to revitalize her, as her teammates exhorted her to once again put the team on her back and carry them to victory.
Not this time.
Neel- who also clinched the indoor national championship for the Gators last winter- dug deep and broke right back, held and then broke again at deuce to claim another national championship for her Gators.
It’s a championship that, in the post match interview, Neel pointed out came due to her teammates’ ability to all step up when they were needed. Austin, after all, was the one who clinched the Gators’ win over Vanderbilt in the semifinals to invert a pair of losses to the Commodores in the regular season and then in the SEC Championship while Neel was defeated in straight sets. When the roles flipped last night, Neel picked Austin up- and that’s been the epitome of this Gator team all year. Rarely have the Gators won consecutive matches with the same four points; rather, different players have come through at different moments to provide the Gators with the 28 different wins they finish the season with. Tennis may be an individual sport, but college tennis is a team game.
And by knocking off the sport’s all time king, defending champions and their biggest rival, the Gators proved to be the best there is at it.