On a cloudy day, in front of a few dozen people at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, a team of players wearing light blue uniforms take on a team in dark blue on six courts.
This is where a college tennis team is experiencing the greatest moment in its history. And where he will die.
For the first time, the men’s team of St. Francis of Brooklyn participated in the NCAA tournament. But after Friday’s first-round game ended and St. Francis fell 4-0 to Columbia, the program was over. St. Francis drops all of its sports at the end of the school year for budgetary reasons.
Chad Davis played at St. Francis and was the men’s tennis coach for 19 years. “Being a college alumnus, being around for so long and seeing the program grow year after year and battle after battle, it’s definitely a bitter pill to swallow,” he said.
Making the tournament seemed unlikely after St. Francis got off to a 1-10 start this season, including a loss in its conference opener. “It was really difficult at first; we weren’t clicking,” Davis said.
Then, in March, news broke that the college’s athletic programs were being shut down. The school cited “increasing operating expenses, flattening revenue streams and capping enrollment.”
“It was very surprising,” said one of the players, Luis Foix Sotos, from Jávea, Spain. “When I saw the athletic director, her voice was very sad. I said, ‘There’s something going on here.’ When she broke the news, some people were crying. It was a very sad moment.”
Davis said, “Just to hear it, it was definitely a punch.” Still, the news, the coach said, strangely seemed to rally the team. “The guys got a little closer and we had some great wins.”
The team has won seven of its last eight games, including all of its remaining conference games. But you had to win the Northeast Conference tournament to qualify for the NCAA tournament. In the final, he met Fairleigh Dickinson, who had eliminated him the previous two years.
Foix Sotos is the player who won the decisive game in a 4-2 victory. “It was the best feeling ever,” he said. “It was one of the happiest times of my life. For me, it was epic; it was like a movie that ended in the best possible way.
In the NCAA Tournament against Columbia, St. Francis was a heavy underdog; with a 19-3 record, Columbia had achieved the highest ranking in its history, at 13th nationally. The match was played in front of mostly friends and family, a far cry from when the Billie Jean King Center is overloaded with fans paying $24 for chicken tenders at the US Open.
St. Francis was further hampered by its understaffing, in part because some players were unable to cancel travel plans they had made when a trip to the tournament seemed unlikely. Foix Sotos, for example, played the fourth single, instead of his usual sixth. And Davis also had to miss the game with a medical condition.
Columbia made quick work of the opening doubles matches, not dropping a set, and the singles matches were no closer. When Columbia won their third singles match, the others were shut down and St. Francis’ final season was over.
St. Francis was one of the smaller Division I athletic schools.
The men’s basketball team was one of only four original Division I members to never enter the NCAA Tournament. But the men’s water polo team has made several trips to the Final Four, most recently in 2013, and the city’s backdrop for its football games at Brooklyn Bridge Park has regularly prompted visiting players to clamor selfies.
The men’s and women’s track and field teams are the last ones still in operation, but in a few weeks their last seasons will also be over.
St. Francis said it would honor athletic scholarships for still-eligible players. “Some of the older players plan to stay in New York,” said Foix Sotos, whose eligibility has run out. “They have a life here and they don’t want to be transferred for just one year. But for freshmen and sophomores, they all want to transfer; they are looking for schools.
Sports officials said they were in the process of collecting resumes. Does Davis have any plans after two decades at school? “At the moment, no, I’m not.”
When the game ended on Friday, the team gathered in a circle near one of the nets, their arms tied, and shared a private moment.
“We were just saying thank you,” Foix Sotos said.
“My last college game,” he said of the unexpected visit to the tournament. “Today has been like a reward for me.”