RALEIGH — As a tennis player at Shaw, Sunday Enitan overheard students say mockingly, "We have a tennis team?"
That was years ago, before Enitan became coach of the Bears and ushered the tennis program into a new era. This season, the men's team claimed its seventh consecutive Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association title. The Bears went undefeated in conference play and have a 25-1 overall record.
Last week, the Bears outlasted Bluefield State and earned the school's first berth into the NCAA Division II championships. They leave today for Sanlando Park in Altamonte Springs, Fla., where they'll face Abilene Christian at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday in the first round of the 16-team tournament.
The Bears defeated the Big Blues 5-3 in the Atlantic Region No. 1 finals, defending their home court at Biltmore Hills Tennis Courts before a host of Shaw supporters.
It pleased Enitan to see fans acknowledge the team's success after years of neglect when he was Shaw's top player from 1990-94.
"People from Shaw came and supported us," Enitan said. "A lot of them showed up. I'm really impressed."
Others are impressed with how Enitan, a native of Nigeria, has turned the program into a powerhouse. In his 11th season, he has guided the Bears to No. 1 in the Atlantic Region - a ranking that is believed to make them the first conference team to host a regional tournament.
He has orchestrated the program's rise with a deliberate philosophy of recruiting foreign-born scholarship players. The men's team is currently made up of players from Colombia, Brazil, Mozambique and Nigeria.
The team has no American-born players.
Enitan, 42, first thought of the idea as a player when Shaw was thrashed by Hampton - the conference's flagship program at the time.
Back then, the Pirates fielded strong teams of mostly international recruits. They won 15 conference championships between 1980 and 1995 before moving to Division I play.
Enitan left his home country to study and play tennis at Shaw. When he was hired as coach by the school, he quickly organized a network to recruit international talent. Unable to visit many foreign countries, he relies on word of mouth, phone conversations with recruits and hours of video footage.
He said the strategy is common among Division I programs based on the popularity of the sport throughout the world.
While he recruits U.S.-born players, Enitan said he's noticed a difference among elite foreign-born players.
"They start at an early age," he said. "When they are 6, 7. You can see the difference. They are really, really into tennis."
Many of the top foreign-born players attend Division I schools, yet the pool is so large Division II programs such as Shaw benefit. Still, it's rare to find a CIAA team with a complete roster of foreign-born players.
Enitan's strategy has yielded results.
"He has fulfilled that plan," Shaw athletic director Al Carter said. "He's built a system through his personal contacts. ... It's not easy. But winning does help. Prospective student-athletes want to identify with a winning program."
Observers only need to look at Shaw's current team for recent examples. Only one men's player dropped a singles match in conference play all season.
In doubles, the Bears dropped just two conference matches.
"Their depth has to be looked at as their biggest strength," Winston-Salem State coach John Martin said. "Right from the get-go they've got that intensity. And they don't let up."
One through six, the Bears are trim and fit, carving out the identity of tireless workers on the court.
"All of our guys are like warriors," said freshman Carlos Guarin, the team's No. 1 singles player who brought his baseline style from Bogota, Colombia, this season.
It was the efforts of freshman Daniel Vasquez that propelled the Bears into the NCAA tournament. In the regional finals, he defeated Dusan Zivkovic of Bluefield State 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7-5), pulling out a gutsy singles match.
Most of Shaw's players have 10 or more years of tennis experience.
Three teammates speak Spanish. Two speak Portuguese. Two others speak English as a native language. The coach's native tongue is Yoruba.
Player's religions range from Christian to Muslim to Catholic. They've traded cultural traditions and have developed a respect for their differences.
Language has sometimes been a barrier, but players said they've developed patience over team meals and activities. "The most important thing is to get along," Shaw's Ataide M. Suca said. "The culture is actually a big concern. You never know if you're going to get along. But this team is unbelievable because everybody gets along. That's the main key for a team to be successful."
Suca, a junior, graduated from Barton Community College and enrolled at Shaw this season. He left Maputo, Mozambique, to study and play tennis. He didn't know what to expect in North Carolina.
"Look what I got," he said. "I came here first year, and I'm going to nationals. You can't beat that."
Shaw senior Kalada Kienka graduates this spring with a degree in computer science. He left his home in Lagos, Nigeria, for an opportunity to study and play tennis on a high level.
Last week, Kienka paraded around the court in celebration when his teammate Vasquez pulled out the final match to send the team to nationals. He had waited four years for the team to break through.
Later, he looked around at his teammates and considered the distances they had traveled to be there in that moment.
"People get the wrong idea about Shaw," Kienka said. "They say it's a historically black university, probably no diversity. But there is. Even if it's just on the tennis team. We create enough diversity for the whole school."
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