Women’s tennis set to 3-peat

Women’s tennis made the pilgrimage to the University of Redlands yesterday as the Ephwomen look to become the first team in history to capture three consecutive NCAA Div. III National Championships. Last year’s Eph team bested Emory 6-3 to make Williams the first college in the tournament’s 22-year history to repeat as National Champions.

Though the Ephs know what playing in the National Tournament is all about, this year’s tournament will likely prove the most challenging yet for women’s tennis. Indeed, the top-seeded team at last year’s tournament, this year the Ephs will enter play as the fifth-seeded team in the country.

“This is really the first year that we’re kind of the underdogs,” Steph Hall ’04 said, the Ephs’ top-seeded player. “That said, we didn’t really feel any pressure last year because no one had ever won it twice in a row, and we don’t really feel any pressure at all this year – we don’t have anything to lose so it’ll just be exciting.”

In spite of the lower seeding, members of the team enter tournament play confident that the squad is peaking at just the right moment, pointing to last week’s gut-check 5-3 win over Tufts that earned the Ephs the Regional Championship. Players cited the improvement of earlier competition in preparing the team for the challenges that await at Nationals.

“Every year has been very different,” Julie Mallory ’04 said. “Every tournament has such a completely different feel, but I think that the most significant part of this year is that we had a much more competitive Regionals to work through before we got to Nationals.

“We played Tufts in the finals and that was a much tougher match than we’ve had before at that level – in that sense, Regionals was great for us because it gave us a preparation match that was much more of a challenge than we’re used to going in to Nationals; hopefully we can use that.”

First up for Williams will be tomorrow’s match against a Trinity of Texas team that the Ephs have crossed paths with at National Tournaments in years past. Last year the Ephs squeaked by Trinity in the semifinals by a narrow 5-4 margin. The year before last, Williams bested Trinity in the finals to earn its first national title.

“We played them last year in the semifinals and the year before that we played them in the finals,” Kate Troy ’04 said. “They’re a very scrappy team, they’re loud and spirited and really fun to play because they get very emotionally involved in the intense matches. They’re always really good competitors.”

Though Trinity has given the Ephs a run for their money before, both teams will be without their respective number one players from last season. The Ephs lost Selma Kikic ’02, while the Tigers lost Lizzy Yassar.

The going won’t get any easier for the Ephs should they prevail over the Tigers on Wednesday. Though it is always difficult to put anyone above the defending champions, Emory will field an improved team from last year and is hungry for a national title.

“We could potentially be facing Emory and they really want to win nationals this year,” Hall said. “We’ve also played them the last two years – they’re definitely in my mind the team to beat, and I’d say we’re the team to beat them.”

Williams squared off against Emory at the Fab Five Tournament over spring break in Atlanta, and the Ephs came away with a stinging 9-0 defeat. However, Mallory was quick to point out that at that point in the season many of the Ephs’ doubles pairings were still getting acquainted with one another and that since then the members of the team have picked up their play.

“Since we got toward the end of the spring season our doubles teams have sort of caught fire,” she said. “We had three new pairings for doubles this spring, so that always takes a little bit of adjustment time and I think through the process of matches that we’ve had that we’ve really improved a lot.

“In fact, the last couple matches we’ve had our doubles have really been a big strength for us – we’ve been able to get to 3-0 really quick and hopefully that can continue to be one of our strengths. Everybody is playing really well as of late.”

In other news, women’s tennis was recently awarded the monthly ITA National Team Sportsmanship Award for the month of May.

Said Emory Head Coach Amy Smith, who nominated the Ephs for the award, on the ITA website: “(Williams) is always friendly with smiles on their faces – whether winning or losing. Off the court, the players seem genuinely interested in their opponents’ lives – inquiring about school, life and possible friend connections.

“Furthermore, they are respectful of their opponents, opponents’ coaches and opponents’ family members. All this while maintaining a fierce competitive nature on the court – a difficult balance to achieve – but [it] seems natural for the Williams team.”

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