Even before the Florida women’s tennis team made it through the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, Ingrid Neel was already thinking about the bigger stage.
The top-seeded Gators were preparing for their second-round matchup with Miami, a match they would eventually win 4-1 to advance to the Round of 16, but Neel wasn’t too concerned about Florida’s chances.
“Let’s pick out our outfits” the confident freshman told her teammates.
“’We haven’t even won today,” they responded.
“It’s OK. We’re fine,” Neel replied. “I’m ready to go.”
Indeed she was.
Not only did the top-seeded Gators advance out of that opening weekend with flying colors, they ran through their final four matches of the in Athens, Ga. Florida capped the run with a 4-1 win over No. 7 seed Stanford on Tuesday night to win the program’s first national women’s tennis title since 2012.
And it was Neel, that confident freshman who hadn’t even been in college for 5 months, that provided the clinching point for the Gators’ national championship.
“I didn’t think it would come down to me,” Neel said, “but I just kept on fighting. I knew that Stanford could turn it around, but I just couldn’t believe I was the one to finish it. It just means so much.”
Neel, a 5-foot-6 righty from Minnesota playing on the No. 3 singles court, faced an uphill battle before eventually earning the three-set victory over Stanford’s Taylor Davidson, a senior All-American who clinched the Cardinal’s national title last season.
After Neel dropped a back-and-forth first set 7-5, the freshman rebounded to take the second set 6-3 and take an early 3-0 lead in the decisive third set. Davidson rallied back to take the next two games before Neel closed out the championship bout by winning three straight matches. As Davidson’s final shot sailed out of bounds, Neel dropped her racket, raised both hands in the air and ran toward her teammates to celebrate.
“She couldn’t hit the ocean from 5 feet in the first set and then all of a sudden here you go,” coach Roland Thornqvist said. “She’s competing her way 6-3, 6-2 in her last two sets against an unbelievable competitor. We’re just a tough team. That’s how you win championships.”
As a freshman among a roster filled with juniors and seniors, Neel had be aggressive from the start if she wanted a chance to make the lineup each week.
So she was.
Mere days after enrolling at Florida in January, she made a run to the semifinals in her first collegiate tournament, the Freeman Memorial Women’s Tennis Championships in Las Vegas. She won her first three matches — two against ranked opponents — before losing to Stanford’s Melissa Lord.
A month later, she provided the clinching singles match in Florida’s 4-2 win over No. 2 North Carolina for the ITA National Indoor championship with a 6-4, 1-6, 6-3 victory against the Tar Heels’ Jessie Aney, the No. 17-ranked player in collegiate tennis at the time.
Three months after that, she closed out her freshman year by clinching Florida’s seventh women’s tennis national championship in program history.
“I don’t know how she does it,” Thornqvist said of Neel. “First, as a freshman in January, she clinches the National Indoors Championship for us last match on. And here, she beats one of the best competitors I’ve seen in college tennis for us to win a national championship. Ingrid is unbelievable, and we’re just blessed to have her.”
All in all, Neel finished the year with an 18-7 record in dual-meet singles matches and a dominant 21-3 record in doubles play with partner Anna Danilina. Neel and Danilina, ranked No. 11 in the ITA doubles rankings, were a perfect 5-0 in doubles play during the NCAA Tournament. Two of their final three wins came against top-10 opponents.
“It didn’t take long for us to see that our new player is a real gamer,” Thornqvist said. “If she gets her teeth into a match at all, she’s going to win almost every time.”
Now, she’s a national champion, and she still has three more years to compete with the Gators.
“To come and do as well as she has done is very difficult to do,” Thornqvist said. “… There are real athletes with real goals here on campus. She fits right in.”