Xavier women’s tennis team shoots for long stay at NAIA tourney

NEW ORLEANS — Kourtney Howell and Brion Flowers, Xavier’s winning combination of experience and youth, has led the women’s tennis team to new heights.

The Gold Nuggets recently ended the regular season atop the NAIA coaches poll, a first for any Xavier sport. Also, the doubles team of Howell, a junior who transferred from Navy, and Flowers, a Hurricane Katrina evacuee back in New Orleans for her freshman year, are the top-ranked doubles team in the NAIA, another program milestone.

Now the two players and their teammates face an even bigger challenge: duplicate this spring’s success during the postseason.

Xavier opens play in the NAIA National Championship on Wednesday afternoon at the Copeland-Cox Tennis Center in Mobile, Ala. The top-seeded Gold Nuggets, who earned a first-round bye, will play a second-round matchup against Indiana Wesleyan, a 5-4 winners against Coastal Georgia on Tuesday afternoon.

Their coach knows what they need to do to win.

“They have to be hungry,” said Xavier coach Alan Green. “They have to go into the tournament not thinking that the opponent is going to hand them the matches because you’re the No. 1 team in the country. If they go in like they’re the underdog, like they’ve been playing all year, then I’m sure we’ll be successful.”

To do so would also be another first.

In seven national tournament appearances, Xavier’s women have never advanced past the second round. That’s a streak Howell, Xavier’s top singles player — she is ranked 6th in NAIA — wants to end.

“We’ve been successful this season because we enjoy being around each other,” she said. “If we do what we know we can do at the tournament, there’s no reason why we can’t win it.”

A big factor in Xavier’s success has been the talented freshman trio of Flowers (No. 2), Simone-Alyse Ewell (No. 4) and Vashni Balleste (No. 6).

“A lot of schools doubt us because we’re an HBCU (Historically black college and universities), but we know if we focus, put our minds to it, we can win the title,” Flowers said.

The Gold Nuggets (17-7) have won their last nine matches. Howell and Flowers have also won their last nine doubles matches.

Xavier’s women will be joined in the national tournament by Xavier’s sixth-seeded men’s team, which opens play Wednesday morning against Belhaven (Miss.), 7-2 winners Tuesday against Spring Arbor (Mich.). One season ago, the men’s program became the first Xavier sport to advance to the quarterfinals of an NAIA championship since 1973.

Xavier’s short-handed men (14-7) ended the regular season ranked No. 6 in the NAIA coaches poll. Last month, the squad achieved a No. 5 ranking, the highest in team history.

“It’s been pretty amazing, what they’ve been able to do,” Green said. “We had a full team in the fall, which in my estimation, would have been good enough to be No. 1 in the country, just like the women.” But the men’s team lost two players to academics and a player transfer.

“We had to roll with the punches, we dealt it. We didn’t hold our heads down. We went on about our business and competed.”

Senior Loic Didavi (15-6), a transfer from Auburn Montgomery (Ala.), placed fifth in 2011 NAIA singles and third in doubles. Now he’s hoping to duplicate his former success. Teammate Nikita Soifer (16-10), a sophomore from Israel, is the team’s No. 2 player.

Both teams have been helped this season with the addition of a six-court, lighted tennis facility, a $2.5 million project completed last fall. The courts are two blocks from Xavier’s Convocation Center and Convocation Center annex.