For the Wilmington University women’s tennis team, the 2021–22 season was one of unprecedented achievement.
Made up of seven international players — two from Spain, two from England, and one each from Austria, South Africa, and the Netherlands — the team broke several school records on its way to winning multiple championships. Not incidentally, the players also excelled in the classroom.
In conference play, the Wildcats went 9-0 for the first time in school history and won the Central Atlantic Athletic Conference (CACC) regular season championship and the Conference Tournament Champion-ship, which earned them an automatic bid to the NCAA Division II East Regional Championship this past spring.
Individual awards abounded. Coach Troy Donato was named both the 2021 CACC Coach of the year and the USTA Delaware Region College Coach of the Year. Freshman Neus Ramos Moreno won Conference Player of the Year honors, and three players — Begona Gomar Perez, lentina Ivankovic, and Jess Purdy — were named second-team All-Conference.
In May, in the East Regional #1 Bracket at Delcastle Tennis Center, the team defeated No. 5 Le Moyne, 4-0, to earn a trip to the NCAA Division II National Championships in Altamonte Springs, Florida. They thus became just the third team in Wilmington University Athletics’ NCAA era to win a regional tournament, joining the 2012 and 2015 golf programs and the 2015 baseball team.
In Florida, where they were seeded 14th among “the sweet 16,” the Wildcats lost to No. 3, the University of Indianapolis, but Donato says the trip was “amazing” and his team was “super competitive.”
“So many coaches and officials and other players came up to me afterward and said they were shocked that we were just the 14th seed,” he says. “We lost, 4-0, but most of the rallies were anywhere from 10 to 15 shots — it wasn’t like we were being blown off the court. The biggest takeaway from the trip is that we are not far off from the top teams in the country.”
Donato, who was hired in July of 2019, coached the team to three victories in the fall, but then COVID terminated the spring season after just two matches. The coach made the best of the shutdown by hosting meetings on Zoom and WhatsApp with the team, who all live in a group house that’s within walking distance of the main campus. He says these virtual get-togethers helped bond the team and provided impetus for the stellar season that followed.
The coach is quick to share credit for the 17-4 2021–22 overall record. He credits his “mentor,” University of Delaware Director of Tennis Pablo Montana, with helping him recruit international players. And he calls his assistant coach, Boubacar Toure, “the heart and soul of the team.”
“I’ve never been to Europe,” Donato says, “so I don’t really know what it’s like there, but Boubacar does. He is someone that the girls can relate to. He finds a way to bring a piece of home to them. He’s a nice bridge between me and the girls.”
Donato says other Wildcat coaches, such as men’s soccer’s Nick Papanicolas, have been generous with their counsel. The Athletics Department also gets kudos. “They support us with anything we need to do well,” he says, citing a new ball machine and a team van to take the girls to practice, home matches and nearby away contests.
The biggest takeaway from the trip is that we are not far off from the top teams in the country.” — Troy Donato
But he gives most of the credit to his players. Calling them “hard-working, confident, and like a family,” he believes most of them could play Division I tennis. “They choose to come here because they know they’re going to be on a team that’s going to be nationally ranked. And if you’re among our top three, you’re most likely going to have a national individual ranking.”
The last remaining player from his first team is Perez, who received her MBA in May. “I knew Troy from when he was the assistant coach at Goldey-Beacom,” she says, “and I was happy when he came here. He’s very energetic and enthusiastic and he’s always making sure everyone is OK. He knows how to handle situations and bring the team together. We’re all very good friends.”
Conference Player of the Year Moreno, who, like Perez, is from Spain, says that when she arrived at WilmU last fall, “everyone was so nice. Now it feels like home — like a family.”
Of Donato, she says: “He tells us, ‘if you have any problem, you can call me, I will do my best to help you.’”
All the bonding has helped not only on the court but also, apparently, in the classroom. The Regional champs posted a 3.69 team GPA, second overall to men’s golf among Wildcat athletic teams.
Donato’s parents, Patti and Jim Donato, are among a dedicated group of fans who attend home games at the Delcastle Tennis Center (which is co-owned by Toure). Patti Donato, a former Area League coordinator for the Delaware District of the U.S. Tennis Association, says the men’s soccer team and several USTA officials attend most matches, along with some faculty. Malone Harmon, husband of University President Dr. LaVerne Harmon, is a regular, and Dr. Harmon herself attended the Regional Championship match.
Also at every match is another member of the WilmU tennis family — the coach’s dog, a female German shepherd mix named Kova, after retired tennis star Anna Kournikova. (His parents’ dog is named Ace, after the tennis term for an untouched serve.)
“It’s just a great atmosphere,” Patti Donato says. “The girls are lovely, just a nice group. They’re good but modest.”
Donato continues to search for quality players, making extensive use of Zoom and working with agencies in Europe and other parts of the world. He evaluates not only tennis skills, but personalities.
“I think it’s important to recruit people who want to be here,” he says. “Fortunately for us, because of our location between two major cities, we’re able to give them a full experience. For their four years with us, we want to make sure we give them memories for a lifetime. That’s really important. I tell them, when you leave here you’re going to have plenty of stories to tell your parents, your grandparents, your kids.”
With two new players coming in from France and Sweden, Donato is looking forward to the 2022–23 campaign. “Looks like a great year to me,” he says.