Penguins going Gator hunting
YSU women back in NCAA tourney
By Brian Dzenis
Making it to the NCAA Tournament is Mickael Sopel’s job.
The Youngstown State women’s tennis coach will take the Penguins dancing for the fifth consecutive season. The fifth-year head coach hasn’t taken much time to reflect on the run of success. This is just what he and his team do.
“In my mind, it’s always the goal and I’m happy — that’s why I do this. I think with the resources we have, this is what I’m supposed to achieve,” Sopel said. “Winning the [Horizon League] is a goal I should have and I should be happy, but at the same time, it’s what I’m here for.”
YSU will face reigning national champion Florida — going for its fourth title this decade — on Friday in the Gators’ Linder Stadium. It will be the last tournament for the Penguins’ most successful senior class.
“It just makes you want to play even harder,” Sofia Macias said. “This is your last chance to play with your team. It just doesn’t feel real.”
The Penguins (16-10, 8-1) head to Gainesville having won nine of their last 10 matches. Their bid for an unbeaten season in Horizon League play was ruined with a 5-2 defeat to the University of Illinois-Chicago in the second-to-last regular season match.
“I personally learned how to deal with my opponent. I knew what I had to do for the match,” Noelly Longi Nsimba said. “As a team, we talked about staying on top, cheering as loud as we can and not letting anything affect us. If they win the first set, that’s fine. We keep fighting through.”
The Penguins got their revenge in the Horizon League final, downing the Flames 4-0 to advance to the NCAA Tournament. Florida (18-8, 11-2 SEC) is the tournament’s No. 9 seed. The Gators will send two singles players to the individual portion of the tournament in Josie Kuhlman and Anna Danilina.
“You’re playing a team that has a legacy of doing extremely well in the tournament — they’re a favorite to win again even though they are a No. 9 seed,” Sopel said. “Going there, you know you’re not the favorite so there’s no pressure and it’s a good thing for us.
“You need to step on the court and just play relaxed and strong. We’ll see what happens you never know.”
In the four previous visits to the tournament, The Penguins have been swept by Power Five schools such as Ohio State, Michigan, Virginia and the University of Southern California.
“This is one of those sports where it’s very difficult to [get an upset],” Sopel said. “It’s not like basketball or other sports.”
Macias (23-13) and Longi Nsimba (22-15) are the program’s top two singles players heading into the tournament. Macias is on a six-match winning streak.
“I’m ready for anything. I’m like ‘let’s go girls and give this our all,’” Macias said. “I’m excited to go there and just work hard on the courts.”
An improbable upset would make for a great send-off for one of the most successful generations of YSU women’s tennis.
“We’re ready to go and fight,” Longi Nsimba said. “It’s all in the racket. Whoever has the best game can win.”