On an overcast day, before a few dozen people at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, a team of players wearing light blue uniforms battles a team in dark blue across six courts.
This is where a college tennis team has the greatest moment in its history. And where it goes to die.
For the first time, the men’s team from St. Francis of Brooklyn was playing in the N.C.A.A. tournament. But after the first-round match was over on Friday, and St. Francis had fallen, 4-0, to Columbia, the program was no more. St. Francis is dropping all of its sports at the end of the school year for budgetary reasons.
Chad Davis played at St. Francis and has been the men’s tennis coach for 19 years. “Being an alum of the college, being there 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 first conference game. “It was definitely difficult in the beginning; we weren’t clicking,” Davis said.
Then in March came the news that the college’s athletic programs were being shut down. The school cited “increased operating expenses, flattening revenue streams, and plateauing 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, ‘Something is going on here.’ When she said the news, some people were crying. It was a very sad moment.”
Davis said, “Just to hear it, it was definitely a gut punch.” Yet the news, the coach said, oddly seemed to rally the team. “The guys kind of came together, and we strung together some nice wins.”
The team won seven of its last eight games, including all of its remaining conference games. But it needed to win the Northeast Conference tournament to qualify for the N.C.A.A. tournament. In the final, it met Fairleigh Dickinson, which had eliminated it the previous two years.
Foix Sotos was the player who won the clinching match in a 4-2 victory. “It was the best feeling ever,” he said. “It was one of the happiest moments of my life. For me, it was epic; it was like a movie that ended in the best way possible.”
In the N.C.A.A. tournament against Columbia, St. Francis was a big underdog; with a 19-3 record, Columbia had achieved the highest ranking in its history, at No. 13 nationally. The match took place in front of mostly friends and family, a far cry from when the Billie Jean King Center is overstuffed with fans paying $24 for chicken tenders at the U.S. Open.
St. Francis was hampered further by being short-handed, 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 fourth singles, rather than his usual sixth. And Davis also had to miss the match with a health problem.
Columbia made quick work of the opening doubles matches, and the singles matches were no closer. When Columbia won its clinching third singles match, the others were halted, and St. Francis’s final season was done.
St. Francis was one of the smallest schools with Division I athletics.
The men’s basketball team was one of just four original members of Division I never to make the N.C.A.A. tournament. But the men’s water polo team made multiple Final Four trips, most recently in 2013, and the city skyline backdrop to its soccer games in Brooklyn Bridge Park regularly made visiting players clamor for selfies.
The men’s and women’s track teams are the last still going, but in a few weeks their final seasons, too, will be over.
St. Francis has said it will honor the athletic scholarships of the players with eligibility remaining. “Some of the older players are planning to stay in New York,” said Foix Sotos, whose own eligibility is exhausted. “They have a life here, and they don’t want to transfer for only one year. But for the freshmen and the sophomores, they all want to transfer; they are looking for schools.”
Athletic officials said they were getting résumés together. Does Davis have any plans after two decades at the school? “At the moment, no I do not.”
When the match was over on Friday, the team gathered in a circle by one of the nets, arms linked, and shared a private moment.
“We were just saying thank you,” Foix Sotos said.
“My last college match,” he said of the unexpected visit to the tournament. “Today was like a reward for me.”
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