WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Staying hungry, while enjoying the small victories. That's what Williams women's tennis head coach Alison Swain claims will be key for her Eph women in the coming season.
Entering now what is her tenth season in charge of the program in which she played and co-captained as an undergraduate, rarely has Alison Swain's team entered a new season without having held the NCAA Championship trophy the previous May. In fact, only twice in her nine-year tenure at the helm has her team not been crowned NCAA Tournament winners, but this is one of those years.
Swain isn't particularly bothered by either her aforementioned success, winning 7 NCAA Championships and 4 NESCAC Championships (one of which came last season), or her lack of a national title at the end of the 2015-2016 season. Instead of feeding off her success and failures in terms of her team's results, the illustrious coach prefers to draw inspiration from how much she is growing and learning each year.
"To be a great coach you have to be excited about learning and getting better," philosophized Swain. "There is so much to learn in coaching, and every year, even when we were winning our streak of 6 [NCAA Championships] in-a-row, we never did it the same way. I feel like if we hadn't improved as a program, on and off the court, including me as a coach, we never would have won that next year. It wasn't by doing it the same."
So in some ways, even without that NCAA trophy, Swain won't be approaching this season any differently than she has any of her previous nine: she'll be devising a new way to elevate her team to new heights.
Although Swain's approach and motivations may not rely upon a past year's success or failure, that is not to say that her players won't feel the effects of having missed out on the chance to hold the much-coveted title for a second consecutive year, a reality that does not escape the veteran player and coach either.
"There's a different motivation when we are trying to prove ourselves, versus when we are trying to live up to outward expectations," explained Swain when asked in what ways last season would affect the coming one. "When we've won national championships, sometimes we feel the pressure of outward expectations, and when we haven't won national championships, it's easier to focus on our own internal drive. There is a real hunger when you're trying to prove yourself. That's an innate thing."
Swain is hoping that that hunger is sustained throughout the next nine months, but she doesn't want it to weigh too heavily on the shoulders of her women, something she believes may have been the case at different points in seasons past.
"We need to try to celebrate the little moments along the way," beseeched Swain of her players. "Sometimes we lose sight of what it means to beat a top-10 team in the country or compete really hard against a great team… sometimes there is so much pressure that we forget to celebrate, so keeping that joy amid the pressure of expectation is important."
That balance of levity and desire to prove oneself was one of the biggest keys that Swain emphasized for this year's iteration of her women's tennis team to succeed where last year's fell ever so slightly short.
Balance, however, is one of those things that might be more easily talked about than accomplished, especially without former co-captains and spiritual leaders of the team, Maya Hart and Alex Stone, both of whom graduated and moved on at the end of last season.
Although it is impossible not to acknowledge the immeasurable contributions of the two former Williams players on a daily basis in practice and off the court, the good news for Swain is that she returns all six from her lineup of starting singles players and five of six from her lineup of starting doubles players from last season. Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio and Mia Gancayco (who split time partnering with Hart on the doubles court) will be seeking new partners in crime, but otherwise the Ephs will have ample continuity.
And if it's one thing that Swain knows well from her nine years of coaching experience and four years of playing, it is that players are not the constant in a program.
"Although our team culture may be the same each year, our team chemistry is newly formed with the people that are on our team that year," opined Swain on the recurring theme of graduating players. "While we will miss Maya and Alex, I think everyone is excited to see what our team chemistry is going to be like as it starts to come together."
Atkinson and Shin share one attribute in particular, simply by virtue of having been members of the women's tennis team for the past three years, that makes them invaluable examples for this season's group of players, and that is their experiences in both winning and losing, the latter of which many of Swain's players have not really experienced during their time playing for Williams.
"Hannah and Linda have been part of a national championship team, a third-place team, and a second-place team; they've won NESCAC finals; they've lost a NESCAC final," reasoned Swain when explaining what it is that her two seniors have that is so valuable and unique. "They've been through all those ups and downs with experience winning and losing, and both are key."
Emblematic of what the all-star head coach was saying, Atkinson and Shin are the only members of this year's women's tennis roster who have lost to Amherst, a feat that even Swain still remarks as crazy.
But because Swain has been so successful, that experience is something that she wants to take full advantage of in the coming season.
The seniors won't be on their own though in terms of leadership, as they will look to spread their influence through the superior numbers of the larger junior class.
As the most numerous contingent on the tennis team, composed of four members, Juli Raventos, Mia Gancayco, Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio, and Julia Cancio, the juniors might have the most direct influence thanks to both their talent on the court and their exemplar attitudes on and off.
All four of them have been competitive in the Ephs' starting lineup since they arrived on campus two years ago now, and that kind of influence is unmistakable.
"They came in freshman year and were part of the first undefeated season in program history; they won a national championship," spoke Swain of the experience of being a current junior on her team. "And coming off that, you can have a distorted sense of how hard it actually is to win a national championship. And now, after last year, I'm interested to see what their perspective is because I think they'll add a lot."
With the upperclassmen combining forces to spearhead the 2016-2017 team, they will have returning sophomores, Leah Bush and Carmen Saab, along with three new first-years amongst their ranks, to guide along the right path.
Bush already had the opportunity to contribute in the singles lineup last time around, locking down the #6 singles position and making it her own later in the spring season, and Saab will look to do something similar as she now has a year under her belt in the purple valley.
"One of the things that's exciting to me about our three first-years is that they all play very different game styles, which is great for us," insisted Swain when asked what her expectations were for the contributions of the first-years at such an early stage in their collegiate careers. "And they all have high levels of doubles and singles experience, when sometimes American players don't have as much doubles experience, so that was a huge benefit for us when I was recruiting these three women."
Although their talent is unquestionable, Swain is more focused on ensuring that her first-years have the time to develop their full potential at their own pace, rather than being forced into the team. In practice, it is likely that they will provide plenty of competition for the returning players, but they will also add another dimension in both their pre-college experience and around the diversity of playing styles that they bring to the court.
With so much to look forward to for the coming season, it's difficult not to start thinking about the spring, but the fall season does come first. In the next two months, the Ephs will play four events: three tournaments and a single dual match against age-old rivals Amherst thrown in the mix between the Ephs' second and third tournament outings.
Swain sees this not only as a time for her team to be successful, performing as best they can in these individual tournaments and winning their lone fall duel, but also as a critical time to establish that crucially important team chemistry and as a time to target parts of their games, individually and as a team, for improvement during the winter offseason and the early weeks of the spring season before they return to competitive match play in the second weekend of March.
"This fall is different to me," mused Swain on how she approaches the arguably lighter of her team's two seasons in terms of competitive matches. "It's a time for more development on the bigger picture and development of our team chemistry. At the same time, it does still set the tone for our spring season in a big way, especially in terms of where our players are at throughout the fall, potentially figuring out doubles pairings, and being focused on specific aspects of our game from February up until our spring break trip. That's a huge chunk of our practice time, a huge percentage, so what we see this fall is what we're going to be working on for the first five weeks of our season."
Over the next six weeks, Swain and her players will look to accomplish all of these goals in their practices and in their competitive play, while of course being as successful as they can manage, all with a view of recapturing that NCAA crown at the end of May.
That time sure seems a long way off, but Swain knows better than anyone how quickly that time can arrive and how unprepared a team can feel if they don't use this time, now, in the fall, wisely.
The national championship isn't something that she's talking about with her players yet, but you can bet that she is hoping she will be at the right time and in the right place: on the evening of May 23rd in the NCAA title tilt.
The Ephs open their fall season at home when they host the Lindsay Morehouse Invitational on September 17-18.