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the road to A national championship through the eyes of an sid

The morning started out like a typical tennis match in New England. The courts were soaked from a hard rain the night before, and the players were anxious to start warming up. But this time, the match slated for 10:00 a.m. was not an ordinary match, and this team was not in New England anymore.

The Wesleyan women’s tennis team arrived at Stowe Stadium in Kalamazoo, Michigan around 11:00 a.m. on May 22, 2019. Due to the conditions of the courts, the original start time of 10:00 a.m. had been pushed back to a ‘not before 1:00 p.m.’ start.

THEY WERE THE ONLY TEAM THERE.

Upon arrival, the players immediately headed to the courts and got to work. The surface was wet and there were a lot of puddles, so they all grabbed squeegees and joined in with the NCAA representatives, officials, coaches and parents. A common sight before many Wesleyan tennis matches.

During the hour spent trying to dry out the courts, there was a lot of time to think about the upcoming National Championship match, so I reflected on the journey I witnessed that led the team to this point.

I remembered back to the first Wesleyan women’s tennis match I attended. It was early in the spring and there was still a chill in the air. As I watched, I noticed something that I often see in sports – strong team comradery. But what I witnessed in this group of eight women was bigger than just team spirit. I saw a group of teammates that encouraged and motivated each other consistently and passionately for the entire match. No matter how they were doing individually, I would hear them intermittently scream out, “Here we go Cards,” or specifically single out a teammate with a, “Let’s go V,” or my personal favorite, “SO good,” in reference to a nice point.

Their spirit was electric and I was hooked.

At the next few matches I attended, while I was slowly starting to learn the more intricate details of the sport, I became drawn to the team’s infectious energy. I could feel how special this team was and it was something I liked being a part of. And so, I started finding myself at any portion of matches I could squeeze into my schedule because I didn’t want to miss out on the thrilling atmosphere.

Not only was I impressed with the pure talent and exuberant team attitude, but I was also amazed at the people who surrounded the program and supported it. I saw a head coach and three assistants who unconditionally believed in their players, exhibiting strength and positivity through tough matches, while celebrating with them during their joyous moments. The support stretched far beyond the Wesleyan community too. There was one match where I ran into a 12-year-old girl who had asked her dad (an alumnus) to drive her down from New York to catch a Wesleyan tennis match because they were, “really good.” Another time, I was sitting next to a recruit and her mother watching, who had already visited multiple times, but they said they, “just love the vibe here, whether it is from the players or the coaches, this seems like the perfect fit.” I talked to so many people that seemed to share the same thoughts that I did about this team.

Something that really resonated with me that I witnessed, was how the group recognized that nothing would be given to them. They had to put in the hard work themselves. I saw this carried out one day when I was driving into work observing all of the players squeegeeing the courts for competition, exactly as we were doing for the National Championship. There wasn’t anything this group wasn’t willing to do to achieve greatness and they had a deep gratitude for the opportunity to compete at a high level – something that is all too often taken for granted in collegiate athletics.

The weeks passed and the wins tallied up for the Cardinals. I remember peering into Bacon Fieldhouse before the NESCAC Championship tournament one rainy afternoon to catch a glimpse of their practice.

They were ready, and I could feel it.

On the day of the NESCAC Championship, I arrived early. I walked through Middlebury’s campus, taking in the fresh mountain air and thinking about how exciting it was to be able to watch the upcoming match, one that could go down in history as the first conference title for the women’s team.

Two rivals, one champion.

When the team trailed 2-1 after doubles, I could feel a tinge of anxiety run through my body. I knew how hard they worked all season for this moment, and I knew they still had their work cut out for them in singles play. But as a tennis newbie, I wasn’t as acutely aware as I am today, of how much tennis was still to be played. And so, I watched Wesleyan battle.

I watched Polina Kiseleva and Venia Yeung drop their doubles bout, only to come back stronger than ever in a pair of three-set matches, each recording a hard-earned singles point for their team. I observed Victoria Yu battle from down 5-1 in her first set, to edge her opponent 7-6(5) in a tiebreak. I watched Daniela Alvarez and Megan Tran cheer on their teammates through several hours of uncertainty, their support never wavering.

For the first time in school history, the Wesleyan women’s tennis team won the NESCAC Championship. Winning was impressive, but how they won it is really what made me think, “This team just has it.”

The It I refer to is difficult to pinpoint and explain, but being around a lot of teams in the SID profession, you have a good sense of one’s that are capable of greatness. I had a feeling that their season was far from over.

When the NCAA Tournament rolled around and Wesleyan was selected to host the Regional Rounds, I was ecstatic. I was happy that they were able to play on their home courts, and selfishly, I knew that meant that I would once again be able to watch this extraordinary team play, which I hoped would result in a trip to the Elite 8 when the weekend was over.

They cruised to a straight-forward 5-0 victory in their second round match after having a bye in the first. The following day, the Regional Final was moved to an off-site location due to typical spring weather in New England. The group seemed utterly unphased with the change of venue and I knew we were in for a great day of tennis.

My favorite memory from the Regional Final was not a particular match, game or point, but a moment that happened when the contest was finished. First-year Alexis Almy had lost her singles point due to retirement; she had a minor back injury. So when the team won, I anticipated the normal reaction of sprinting onto the courts, cheering and maybe even some tears. But instead, I watched the teammates slowly walk with Almy across the court, being patient with each painful step she took. It would have been very easy for her teammates to get caught up in the moment and race onto the court, forgetting that she couldn’t do the same, but they didn’t, and this again reiterated how different this group of athletes were.

A week or so later, it was like deja vu all over again as the NCAA Quarterfinal match was moved inside due to weather, but this time we were in Michigan. I again thought about how composed the team was. It truly did not matter where they were competing, they still brought the same intensity, as they remained laser-focused on their end-goal. The team eased to a 5-1 victory, but they celebrated as if they had just won the entire tournament.

This was going to be the team’s first semifinal appearance in school history. It was a big deal.

The semifinal matchup against No. 1 Emory was going to be tough. I knew what the team knew, which was that they would have to give it everything they had. When the Eagles won 8-4 at #3 doubles for the first point of the day, I watched Alissa Nakamoto and Almy collect themselves and immediately go to the other two courts to cheer on their teammates. They didn’t waste time being upset over their defeat, because they knew that their next job was to support their teammates. So I watched them cheer spiritedly as the #1 and #2 doubles tandems fought. The Yu sisters were already down 5-3, so the next game was critical. As my eyes were going back-and-forth between the cheering section, the coaches, and the match, I caught a unique moment. Freshman Kristina Yu mouthed to her sister Victoria, “Calm down. We got this.” In that moment, it was exactly what Victoria needed to reset and fight back. The duo knotted the set at 5-5, before eventually edging the Emory pair 8-6.

Kiseleva and Yeung took care of business to give Wesleyan a 2-1 edge after doubles, before both starting singles strong. They each went 6-0 in their first set and followed by holding their opponents to just two wins, for a pair of 6-2 second-set victories.

They wanted it, and they didn’t hold back. We were up 4-1.

Photo by: John Lacko

The Eagles slowly mounted their comeback though, earning points at #6, #3 and then at #1 singles. The 4-1 lead was suddenly knotted at four points apiece with a trip to the title match coming down to the #5 singles match. Earlier, I watched Almy use her frustration from her doubles performance, to transform herself into a different player. She had an uphill battle, finding herself down 4-2 in the first set, but she locked in and won 6-4. Again in the second, she found herself down 4-1, but she was patient and slowly chipped away at the deficit. During the next five games, the entire team lined the court, cheering her on enthusiastically. I watched Almy throw her fist in the air, screaming at the top of her lungs at her teammates when she started to pull away from her opponent.

Photo by: John Lacko

A team that had never been to the NCAA Semifinals, was now minutes away from advancing to their first National Championship match.

The intensity grew in Almy’s eyes as she tuned everything else out. There was nothing that was going to stop her.

When she won her fifth-straight game, the team stormed the court. There were smiles, tears and a lot of hugs. The No. 4 Wesleyan women’s tennis team just upset top-ranked Emory and was headed to the National Championship.

Photo by: John Lacko

Now, less than 24 hours after the historic victory, the team was back at the courts for the title match. As the players slowly started hanging up their squeegees to start warming up, I stopped thinking about all of the great moments this team had leading up to this point.

I closed my eyes, breathed in and I thought to myself, “Imagine if the team that wins the National Championship is the team that squeegeed their own courts dry before the title match?” I laughed and said to myself, “No one deserves it more than them.”

The next five hours would be the most exciting, nerve-racking and best hours that I have ever spent at a sporting event.

I watched the coin on court two flip up in the air and make the familiar ping sound when it hit the ground. It was about to happen.

History was about to be made.

Claremont-Mudd-Scripts (CMS) recorded the first point at #3 doubles, where despite cutting the deficit to two (6-4), Nakamoto and Almy fell just short. Again I watched the duo, having fought hard but ultimately fallen in two extremely tough matches on back-to-back days, join Alvarez and Tran to create the loudest four-person cheering squad I had ever seen. Kiseleva and Yeung had no issue for the second-straight day. The tandem’s ability to stay sharp and focused on the ultimate goal was incredible.

On court one, the Yu sisters found themselves in a similar situation as their semifinals bout, going back and forth with every point and every game. The match was tied three times before the duo had the victory within reach, but it wasn’t going to be easy. Up 7-6, the Yu sisters found themselves down love-40 in the 14th game of the set. Victoria walked up to the back of the court and took a deep breath. They won the next point, but they were not out of the woods. They had to take this game. They slapped each others hands, while everyone else screamed, “Here we go Wes!” They chipped away slowly, eventually winning the game, to take the set 8-6.

Photo by: Jamie Schwaberow

A last-minute switch saw Tran in the #6 singles spot, where she really stepped it up and battled. The score itself, falling 6-0, 6-3 was not even close to indicative of how the freshman played. Every single point and every single game, was within reach. Almy didn’t waste much time during her Championship match, taking care of business early. Her momentum from the day before carried her through a 6-4, 6-0 victory to put the Cardinals back on top 3-2, before Yeung eased past her opponent for the 4-2 Wesleyan lead.

The Cardinals needed one more point. But would it all come down to the final singles match again?

Only time would tell.

CMS had a fresh player at #3, having not played in doubles. She jumped out to a 4-0 lead over Wesleyan’s first-year Yu. I watched Yu, visibly frustrated, try to regain control. She knotted the set 4-4, but eventually fell 6-4. The second set was similar, as no matter how many great points Yu was able to tally, no matter how strong her defense was, she fell 6-3.

The match was knotted 4-4 after two tight sets at #1 were taken by CMS. Again, Wesleyan’s fate was left to one final singles bout. But this time, it was Kiseleva at #4, who found herself fighting hard. With each player winning a set, the 2019 NCAA Division III National Championship match would be decided in the third set.

As someone who is usually very calm and collected at sporting contests, I was surprised at how nervous I was. The photographer was able to capture how I was really feeling; intermittent gnawing of my fingernails, while hastily updating Twitter and Instagram so that I didn’t miss a second of play.

When Kiseleva won the first three games, I could sense that it was over for CMS. There was no way Kiseleva could lose because her intensity and desire to win was unmatched. She periodically would look over at her teammates and scream, “Let’s go!!” as if to pump them up. By doing so, she was increasing her own confidence. Still, she never looked nervous. She was composed. She was focused.

She knew what had to be done; she knew it was all up to her, and she did it.

It all happened so fast. One second I was videoing match-point and the next second the team had the National Championship trophy boasted into the air. There were hugs. There were tears. There were, “I can’t believe this,” expressions.

This Championship wasn’t won with one player and it wasn’t won on that day. The victory was a collection of wins throughout the year. It was the pure determination and passion, matched with a never-give-up attitude. It was the ‘team before me,’ perspective and the gratefulness to be playing each and every day. They may have won the National Championship on May 22, 2019, but it was everything they did leading up to that point, that lifted them past each team until they were the last one’s standing.

After the trophies were given out, the photos were taken, the story was posted and the congratulations emails, texts, and tweets started pouring in, reality was finally starting to sink in.

The 2019 Wesleyan women’s tennis team just won the National Championship.

There were so many words and phrases I thought of to describe what I had observed, but they all seemed to come up short. What I had witnessed over the last several months was truly amazing, but the one impression I kept coming back to was this:

“The team that squeegeed their own courts dry before the National Championship match is the team that won.”

And I really can’t think of a more fitting description, that truly encapsulates this team and their journey, than that one.

Written by: Ali Paquette

Credits:

Jonas Powell, John Lacko, Jamie Schwaberow, Ali Paquette