WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. - "When our fitness is in a good place, our tennis follows." Those were the chosen words of Eph women's tennis head coach, Alison Swain, when describing her team's preparedness for the start of the more arduous spring portion of the season, set to begin this weekend.
Are the Ephs fit? Swain thinks so.
"I think our fitness is in a good position to start the spring season," spoke the seven-time - well, eight if you include when she, herself, was a player - National Champion coach confidently.
This confidence in her team's progress transitioning out of the off-season and into dual season will be immediately put to the test as early as this Saturday, when her Eph women will travel to Hamilton College for an early-season NESCAC clash.
It has been nearly three years since the last time the Ephs took the court against the Continentals, with only the senior co-captains - Hannah Atkinson and Linda Shin - on the roster for that clash all the way back in April of 2014. The Ephs won 9-0 on that occasion - and coincidentally have never dropped a single point, either singles or doubles, in any of the four matches they've played against Hamilton all-time - but that does not mean that Swain is taking the match for granted.
"The NESCAC is arguably the strongest conference in Division III women's tennis," extolled Swain when asked about the quality of opponents her team will face week-in and week-out over the course of the next two months, before any thoughts of the postseason enter the Ephs' minds.
And she has a good point. Five of the Ephs' seven NESCAC opponents in the month of April are ranked in the top 9 in the national ITA rankings going into the spring season, and their first four are all in the top 8.
Though, to be fair, while the strength of the Ephs' opponents may be considerable, the Ephs, themselves, enter the spring season at the top of the Northeast regional rankings and ranked 2nd in the ITA national rankings, behind only the reigning NCAA Champion, Emory, who bested the Ephs 5-4 in both the regular season and in the NCAA Final last spring.
"It's hard to know at this point which NESCAC teams will be the strongest," reflected Swain, as she struggled to single out one team in the NESCAC as the Ephs' biggest competition for the 2017 NESCAC title. "But I do believe we will be competitively ready for the challenge after our spring break trip."
After their two upcoming away matches this weekend - first against Hamilton and then against Skidmore - the Ephs will have their perennial spring break trip to focus on tennis away from the distraction of midterm season, with the promise of warmer weather in northern-Virginia/Washington, DC area, where they will make their first stop, before carrying on to Claremont, CA on the west coast.
Though the spring break trip may provide opportunities for all her players to get matches under their belts, the matches themselves will by no means be pushovers. The Ephs will have to reckon with three of the top six teams in the country on their travels, including Emory, Claremont-Mudd-Scripps, and Pomona-Pitzer, who all await the purple-and-gold during their two-week, coast-to-coast tennis extravaganza.
The spring break trip, then, might be more of a trial by fire for this 2017 iteration of the Ephs, but win or lose, they will most certainly return to New England more experienced and battle-tested unit than when they departed.
That's not to say, however, that many of the Ephs are not already quite experienced. The Ephs return all six of their starting singles players from the NCAA Tournament last season, as well as five of their six doubles players. (For a full treatment of the Ephs' new and returning players, see the season outlook from the fall here.)
On top of their exploits from past seasons, the Ephs' players can also boast a successful fall campaign. In the handful of weeks from September and October, the Ephs tallied an 8-1 win against rivals, Amherst, while Juli Raventos claimed the ITA New England Singles Title, as well as a second-place finish with her doubles partner, Shin, in the same tournament. Raventos will look to continue to amaze in 2017 and potentially better her NCAA runner-up finish at last year's NCAA individual championships, while trying to equal her doubles achievement with Shin for a three-peat as NCAA Champions when May rolls around.
The Ephs cannot get ahead of themselves, however, because, with more prestigious opponents to come, Swain knows that her outfit cannot afford to get off to a slow start this weekend against either of their opponents.
With Hamilton just over the horizon, Swain expects her team to rely on their high-quality doubles to be the foundation to build their singles play this spring:
"Doubles was a highlight for us in the fall," said Swain. "Our team knows that we are strong in this area, and we will be trying to use that confidence to our advantage at the start of matches. At the same time, I know we have tremendous depth in our singles lineup with our six returning starters, as well as three first-years who have the ability to compete with all our returning players."
With the potential promise of more depth than she was afforded last season, Swain plans on using every opportunity she can to get players on the court early and often, both this weekend and over spring break, and her first chance will be this Saturday at 11 AM EST when the first ball will be served against Hamilton.