CLAREMONT, CA — It is always something special when Williams and Amherst face off against each other, let alone in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament, and Tuesday evening proved to be no exception, as the Ephs and the Lord Jeffs played out a thriller for the right to play in Wednesday's NCAA Division III Women's Tennis National Championship matchup against top-ranked Emory University.
The Jeffs had already defeated the Ephs twice this season, the only team who had handed Williams a loss this year, but the Ephs are more than experienced when it comes to the NCAA tournament, seeking this year their seventh NCAA Championship in-a-row and looking to extend their 33-match winning streak in the NCAA tournament. However, as has been proven countless times before, numbers, statistics, and records mean nothing when it comes to a Williams-Amherst match, and the Jeffs proved just that, as they managed to jump out to a 3-0 lead after doubles and just held on as the Ephs came roaring back in singles to notch a 5-4 win and to book their place in the finals.
The Lord Jeffs put the Ephs under the gun by sweeping all three doubles points. The Jeff pairing of junior Safi Aly and sophomore Sarah Monteagudo put in a clinical performance to claim the first point of the match for the Jeffs by way of an 8-4 victory at three-doubles over the Eph freshman duo of Linda Shin and Hannah Atkinson.
The Ephs' best chance at winning a doubles point came on court 1, but the veteran Jeff tandem of seniors Jordan Brewer and Gabby Devlin managed to claim a break late in the match against Eph senior Kara Shoemaker and junior Rebecca Curran and consolidated it in the next game to notch Amherst's second point of the match with an 8-5 scoreline.
At two-doubles, the Eph combination of senior Kathleen Elkins and junior Maria Pylypiv did their best to try and fight back in some drawn-out games, but the other senior Jeff pair, composed of Jen Newman and Zoe Pangalos, ultimately dismissed Elkins and Pylypiv 8-3 to finish off the doubles sweep for the Jeffs.
It's always hard to find a way back into the match when down 3-0 after doubles, but that is exactly what the Ephs managed to do, as they came out motivated and firing on all cylinders in singles. Curran was the one to get the Ephs on the board, as she downed Pangalos 6-3, 6-0 at five-singles to build momentum for the Ephs. In quick succession, Pylypiv and Elkins also polished off their matches. First, it was Pylypiv over Jeff sophomore Sue Ghosh at the number four position by the scoreline of 7-5, 6-1; then, it was Elkins who leveled the overall match score with her 6-2, 6-4 win over Newman at three-singles.
With the match all-square, the Ephs found themselves in it with a fighting chance. All eyes were on Court 1, as ITA Northeast Senior Player of the Year, Kara Shoemaker, reaffirmed all of her accolades by coming up big when it counted in her match, seeing off Brewer 6-4 in the first set, before claiming the second set in a tiebreaker 7-2.
Williams didn't have the advantage for long, however, as Monteagudo responded quickly by finishing off Pastor at six-singles 6-4 in the second set, after coming back from being down 5-1 in the first set to win it 7-5 in a tiebreaker.
With all the other matches completed and with the overall match score level at 4-apiece, everyone surrounded Court 2, where Devlin had just claimed the second set 6-3 to equalize the match after Shin won the first set in a tiebreaker 7-5. Devlin drew first blood in the deciding set, as she broke Shin at 1-all, and Devlin had her chance at an insurance break at 2-4, when she was up 0-40 on Shin's serve, but Shin rallied and found a way to rattle off five straight points to hold serve. Momentum had clearly shifted in favor of the Ephs with Shin's hold, as Shin broke in the very next game before holding serve to find herself at 5-4 on-serve. Devlin was not demoralized by her sudden shift in fortune, as she emphatically held serve and then broke Shin's next service game, leaving her with a chance to serve out the match.
The match was not out of twists and turns yet, however, as Shin used everything she could muster to win a grueling 30-all point and then pounced on her break chance to send the match to another tiebreaker. Devlin grabbed the early mini-break and raced out to a 3-0 lead over Shin, but Shin methodically worked her way back into the tiebreaker, not giving Devlin any free points. Shin kept the score close and eventually leveled the match at 5-5, but Devlin summoned up a huge, sliced serve out wide to force an error out of Shin and to give herself her first match point. Shin stuck to her guns, however, and won the next point to bring the match to 6-all. After saving a second match point only moments later, it was 7-all, and then Devlin pulled out an amazing backhanded drop-shot winner to give herself her third match point. The third time proved to be the charm for Devlin as she took the next point off a double fault from Shin to claim the match for the Lord Jeffs.
After the match, Eph head coach Alison Swain shared her thoughts on the match and the season as a whole: "In doubles, we fought hard when we were down and we played well at times, but they played better throughout to take all three points. It's possible to come back from that, but it's incredibly difficult, especially against Amherst. We played courageous tennis to come all the way back from 3-0 down, and the girls just had so much pressure on them with the weight of six national championships on their shoulders. It isn't fair to them, and they handled it wonderfully. The heart and the team-spirit that they played with all season, not just today, is something that can't be described, and I am so proud of them.
The Ephs are in the playoff for third place tomorrow against Johns-Hopkins and look to finish off their season with a win. The match is scheduled to start at 5 PM EDT.
Amherst 5, Williams 4
- Shoemaker, Kara (WILLIAMS) def. Brewer, Jordan (AMHERST) 6-4, 7-6(2)
- Devlin, Gabby (AMHERST) def. Shin, Linda (WILLIAMS) 6-7(5), 6-3, 7-6(7)
- Elkins, Kathleen (WILLIAMS) def. Newman, Jen (AMHERST) 6-2, 6-4
- Pylypiv, Maria (WILLIAMS) def. Ghosh, Sue (AMHERST) 7-5, 6-1
- Curran, Rebecca (WILLIAMS) def. Pangalos, Zoe (AMHERST) 6-3, 6-0
- Monteagudo, Sarah (AMHERST) def. Pastor, Monica (WILLIAMS) 7-6(5), 6-4
- Brewer, Jordan/Devlin, Gabby (AMHERST) def. Shoemaker, Kara/Curran, Rebecca (WILLIAMS) 8-5
- Newman, Jen/Pangalos, Zoe (AMHERST) def. Elkins, Kathleen/Pylypiv, Maria (WILLIAMS) 8-3
- Aly, Safi/Monteagudo, Sarah (AMHERST) def. Shin, Linda/Atkinson, Hannah (WILLIAMS) 8-4
Amherst 22-3, nationally ranked #2
Williams 22-3, nationally ranked #3
Order of Finish: Doubles (3, 1, 2); Singles (5, 4, 3, 1, 6, 2)