Billie Jean King believed that "pressure is a privilege." Apparently so does fifth-year Eph head coach Alison Swain and her women's tennis team.
During the fall portion of this year's schedule, her Eph team concentrated on building a team-focused culture, enjoying the game of tennis, and striving to improve each day. This spring, the team turns its' focus to competing on the national stage and facing the pressure of defending their four straight NCAA titles head on. See highlights from NCAA Video of 2011 Championship match here.
Nothing puts an X on a team's back like winning four consecutive NCAA Championships and six overall, the most of any women's tennis team in Division III history. A host of top teams with a mix of veteran players and talented new recruits have surely circled Williams on their spring season schedules this year.
Yet the Ephs look forward to the opportunity that such a challenging schedule provides them.
In short order the Ephs will find out how the fall and their spring preseason has prepared them for one of the most difficult schedules in the history of Williams women's tennis.
This past fall, the Ephs racked up a 4-0 record in dual matches and demonstrated their depth at a host of individual tournaments.
This year the spring trip will begin in western Pennsylvania, include a stop at the Fab Five Tournament in Lexington, VA, and two matches in Florida.
All seven matches on the spring break excursion are against teams ranked nationally in either Division II or Division III.
"It's a privilege to go into the spring season as the #1 team in Division III, but it's not something we take for granted," stated head coach Alison Swain. "As a team, we understand that improvement on the court and within our team culture are keys to reaching our potential. Competing against the best teams in college tennis is a critical part of that improvement."
The spring campaign opens March 18 at California University of Pennsylvania. California U. is ranked 11th nationally in Division II, and is currently 7-1 in dual match play.
The next day the Ephs face Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), which most recently advanced to the finals of the ITA National Indoor Championships, dropping the final 5-4 to Washington & Lee. The Tartans' only other loss came at the hands of California University (PA).
The Ephs next head to Washington & Lee, where they will face three nationally ranked Division III teams. W&L, which is currently ranked 8th Division III, coming off the Indoor National Championships victory, will be the first opponent (3/21). The Ephs will also face #3 ranked Emory University (3/23) and #11 Johns Hopkins University (3/24).
From Lexington the Ephs will head further south to the Sunshine State where they will play at Lynn University (3/27). Lynn is currently ranked third nationally in Division II, while the last opponent over spring break will be Nova South Eastern (3/29), which is ranked 26th in Division II.
If you are thinking the schedule will get easier when the Ephs return to New England, well, you would be almost right.
The first match up north will be on April 1st and will feature the annual battle of New England when the Ephs play host to arch rival Amherst in a match that will start at 1:00 PM but likely will not end for four or five or even six hours if past history is any indication of the intense competition this match usually exhibits.
"I am very impressed with the positive energy, focus, and maturity that my three captains have brought to the table this spring," Swain stated. "They were already leaders by example in previous years. This year, they bring a deeper perspective to our program. It's rewarding to see how much they have grown as tennis players, teammates, and most of all as people over the course of their time here. I have complete faith in their ability to lead this team both on and off the court."
The top half of the Eph ladder will include Kristin Alotta, who earned All-America honors in 2011 for the second year in a row and advanced to the semifinals of the NCAA Individual Singles Tournament. See NCAA Video highlights of Alotta in last year's quarterfinals match in NCAA Singles Tournament here.
This past fall Alotta compiled a singles record of 12-4 and a doubles record of 11-3, advancing to NEWITT semifinals and ITA Regional Tournament quarterfinals in both disciplines. Between singles and doubles play, Alotta has won an impressive 176 matches in the Purple Valley.
Senior tri-captain Taylor French teamed up with Alotta last spring to comprise the Ephs #2 doubles team; they went undefeated in NCAA play. French has accumulated 75 doubles wins in her career versus just 26 losses. She has also been named the ITA Player to Watch and an All-American in doubles in past seasons. This fall she won the prestigious Lindsay Morehouse Award as the senior player in New England who demonstrates outstanding sportsmanship, friendship, and a love of tennis.
Senior tri-captain Caroline Capute has been a mainstay for the team, anchoring the Eph lineup with an impressive 107 career wins (singles + doubles). Capute is coming off a fall season where she posted a 10-3 singles mark and an 8-3 record while teaming up with Elkins in doubles. Notably, Elkins and Capute went 7-0 in post-season play last spring as a doubles tandem.
When it comes to competitive toughness, junior Nancy Worley has made her mark for the Ephs. She has won the decisive 5th point in three NCAA Tournament matches in her career, including the title match in 2011 versus Amherst. She was named a 2011 ITA All-American and finished the year ranked #18 in the nation for singles.
This past fall Worley fashioned a singles record of 12-2. She finished second in both singles and doubles at the ITA Regional Tournament with sophomore Kara Shoemaker. Worley heads into the spring season as the #2 ranked singles player in the Northeast.
Rounding out the top of the lineup this fall was sophomore Kara Shoemaker who went 18-5 as a first year and posted a 10-1 singles mark in the fall campaign. In doubles, Shoemaker and Worley finished seventh in the ITA National Small College Championships in the fall and posted a 7-7 record.
Sophomore Kathleen Elkins will return at the heart of the singles lineup for the second year in a row. The talented lefty showed no lack of confidence a year ago in her debut season by going undefeated in dual matches and posting a singles mark of 25-2. A Second Team All-NESCAC singles selection, Elkins was one of two Ephs to post a singles win in the NCAA Championship title tilt vs. Amherst.
Elkins paired her singles record up with a 19-2 doubles mark teaming up at the #3 spot with partner Caroline Capute. The duo went undefeated in the 2011 NCAA team tournament.
Curran posted an 11-2 record this fall in singles advancing to the semifinals of the NEWITT tournament and winning both her doubles and singles matches in the team's fall 6-3 victory over Amherst.
Pylypiv proved equally impressive notching an 11-3 singles record. As an unseeded player in the ITA tournament, she ran through the competition including a straight set win over #1 seed Kellan Alberstone of Bowdoin, only falling in the semifinals to teammate Worley.
Pastor also made her mark as the NEWITT B Flight Champion. She enters the spring season with a perfect 9-0 singles record and a 9-1 ledger in doubles.
Rounding out the roster, junior Veranika Li returns from studying abroad last semester and will look to build upon a sparkling career record of 13-0 in singles and 9-0 in doubles play.
Swain's Ephs have worked diligently in the fall and the off-season to prepare for their spring schedule and the challenge of trying to claim a fifth straight NCAA title. They are anxious to get outdoors and play.
"Our team is taking each day as an opportunity to be a positive influence on our program," noted Swain. "Working hard, supporting one another, and striving for excellence are all key facets of our focus this spring. I think this team, more than any other, understands that success comes from the enjoyment and dedication that we each put forth daily as members of this program."