By Harry Minium

Old Dominion University’s tennis players weren’t in town Saturday when approximately 2,000 undergraduates walked across the stage at S.B. Ballard Stadium to receive their diplomas. 

The men’s and women’s teams were in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, competing in the NCAA tournament. 

But after both teams recently won Sun Belt Conference titles, ODU President Brian O. Hemphill, Ph.D., invited the Monarchs to spend several hours last week at the Jacobson House, where he and his family reside. 

Standing on his front porch attired in academic regalia on a sun-splashed morning, President Hemphill held a short but emotional graduation ceremony.

He handed degrees to five members of the men’s team, three from the women’s team and Leah Onosato, who won the Sun Belt Conference golf title and will be competing this week in the NCAA tournament. 

The student-athletes missed the pomp and circumstance of Saturday’s ceremony, a speech from Governor Glenn Youngkin and the fellowship of thousands of their classmates. But, as ODU Athletic Director Wood Selig said, “A lot of people would like to be where you are today.” 

Selig was speaking about their Sun Belt championships and trips to NCAA competition, but as graduation ceremonies go, this was far more intimate than most.

President Hemphill’s speech was short but to the point. 

After reminding the student-athletes they had been taught at ODU to have “a commitment to justice for all members of our society,” President Hemphill added: “Every career in every life portends the opportunity to serve, even at the highest levels of our chosen fields. 

“When we are true to the ideals of our calling, when we weave service into the fabric of our lives, it does not matter whether we are teaching in front of a classroom or performing on a stage, we can be what some would call a servant leader. 

“Please know like everyone here today, I am immensely proud of you.” 

After 20 or so minutes of picture taking – how many graduates get to take a selfie with the President? – the graduates, coaches, athletic trainers and support staff from both teams dined with President Hemphill and First Lady Marisela Rosas Hemphill, Ph.D.

The meal wasn’t technically part of the graduation ceremony. It was a reward for winning. 

“When President Hemphill first arrived, he made an offer to our coaches and student-athletes that if they were successful enough to win a conference championship and go to the NCAA tournament, he would host them for a team dinner at his house,” Selig said. 

“You are arguably our two best teams, men and women, of any we have, when you combine academics and athletics and success. You have really set the standard.” - Athletic Director Wood Selig

It was the third such meal President Hemphill has provided in 2022-23. Coach Angie Hind’s women’s soccer team won the Sun Belt title in the fall, giving ODU championships in three of the 11 Sun Belt sports in which the Monarchs compete. The ODU baseball team could make it four by winning next month’s tournament. 

Andreas and Ute Tobisch came 4,132 miles from Frankfurt, Germany, to Norfolk to see their son, Oliver, graduate and play in the  NCAA tournament. They were touched that President Hemphill gave so much of his time during a busy week to fete their son and the other players. 

“This was a wonderful event,” Andreas Tobisch said. “We are so impressed.” 

Selig noted that both teams, and Onosato, overcame adversity. 

Onosato finished 42nd in the Conference USA Tournament in 2022, a season in which coach Mallory Kane said her game collapsed. 

Like millions across the globe, she lost her mojo while suffering from depression as a result of the pandemic. She got counseling, retooled her game in her native Japan and won the Sun Belt tournament two weeks ago. 

The men’s tennis team was horrified 19 months ago when Nicola Vidal’s leg was crushed by a driver in a convenience store parking lot and he nearly died. Vidal’s teammates were with him and unsuccessfully tried to stanch the bleeding from his torn femoral artery. 

He was saved by Perrin Priest, an Eastern Shore oysterman who put a tourniquet on his leg. 

Teammates Francois Le Tallec and Luca Maldoner also had serious knee injuries. Maldoner suffered a torn ACL in March 2022, and it’s not unusual for an athlete to need a year to recover. 

Yet the Innsbruck, Austria, native returned to the court in the late fall and won the deciding match last weekend in a 5-2 victory over South Alabama in the Sun Belt final. Vidal and Le Tallec also returned and helped their teammates defeat the Jaguars. 

“Luca was our Hollywood story,” said Dominik Mueller, the ODU’s men’s coach. “For him to come back that quickly from a torn ACL was amazing.” 

The women’s team, a traditional national power, was cruising toward its third consecutive conference championship when Mya Byrd, a freshman from Norfolk’s Maury High, collapsed during practice on April 7. 

Head coach Dominic Manilla attended to her briefly before trainer Bobby Broddus took over and administered first aid. Byrd’s heartbeat was weak, and she was unresponsive, so he began to do chest compressions. 

Many of her teammates cried as they watched. 

She regained consciousness and was transported to Sentara Heart Hospital in Norfolk. After days of testing, Byrd was found to be healthy. She returned to the court recently and was with the Monarchs when they won the Sun Belt title. 

The trauma of watching their teammate being attended to, and not knowing whether she would live, “hit everyone associated with our team very hard,” Manilla said. 

“It says so much about an outstanding group of young men and women that they were able to fight through adversity the way they did,” Selig said. 

Bruce Stewart, ODU’s deputy athletic director and chief operating officer, chaired the search committees that brought Mueller, Manilla and Kane to ODU and said he isn’t surprised that they helped their players navigate stormy waters.

“All three have an unwavering commitment to student-athlete welfare,” Stewart said. “They recruit globally and are focused not just on winning, but, more importantly, on developing people who will be successful in life.”

All the while, the student-athletes excelled academically.

Tobisch earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering with a concentration in aerospace engineering and will return to ODU this fall to work on a master’s degree. He graduated with a 4.0 grade-point average. 

Vidal and Le Tallec earned bachelor’s degrees in business analytics. Teammate Brandon Perez received a bachelor’s in leadership with a minor in business management, and Maldoner earned a bachelor’s in sport management. 

Onosato, who never had a grade below an “A,” received her master’s degree in applied linguistics. 

Three women’s tennis players also graduated: Tatsiana Sasnouskaya, with a bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity; Shahar Biran, bachelor’s degree in economics; and Alexandra Viktorovitch, bachelor’s degree in business management. She begins work on her MBA this summer. 

All three women’s tennis graduates made the dean’s list every semester, and the team has had the best combined grade-point average among ODU teams three of the last seven semesters. The ODU men also had the highest GPA among men’s teams in three of the last seven semesters. 

“You are arguably our two best teams, men and women, of any we have, when you combine academics and athletics and success,” Selig said. “You have really set the standard.”