CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. - "I've been a part of some of the most incredible comebacks in Division 3 tennis history, if not college tennis in general. But in an NCAA tournament, this might be the best comeback I've ever seen," were the words that Eph head coach Alison Swain used to describe the Ephs' 5-4 NCAA Semifinal victory over Middlebury.
On Tuesday, the remaining four teams in the 2017 Women's Tennis NCAA Tournament took to the courts for their respective semifinal duals, and due to early-morning rain, the all-NESCAC contest between Williams and Middlebury was delayed over two and a half hours before starting offsite and indoors at the Baylor School's tennis facility.
The two teams had already met twice over the course of the spring season, with the Panthers winning the regular season meeting and the Ephs taking the NESCAC Title tilt, and on Tuesday afternoon, the two teams played for a chance to take home the 2017 National Championship. Over 5 hours later, there was finally a winner. The Ephs, led by senior and co-captain, Linda Shin's, epic three-set singles victory, came from behind to beat the Panthers, 5-4, after trailing 2-1 at the conclusion of doubles and 4-1 midway through singles.
Like in their regular-season triumph, the Panthers collected two of the three double points to give themselves a slight advantage going into singles.
The Panther partnership of Alexandra Fields and Christina Puccinelli finished first and built off the early lead they established over Julia Cancio and Emily Zheng on Court 3 to ultimately win the match 8-4.
That match's completion was shortly followed by Juli Raventos and Shin, who overcame an early deficit out of the gates on Court 1 to overcome their opponents, Skylar Schossberger and Katy Hughes, 8-5.
With the dual score even at one point apiece, the two teams battled out the final match on Court 2 between the Eph team of Hannah Atkinson and Chloe Henderson and the Panther team of Kaysee Orozco and Catherine Blazye. The Ephs managed to keep things close up to 4-4, but then the Panthers took over, stringing together the final four games of the match to secure the 2-1 advantage for their side heading into singles.
In the singles portion, things immediately got worse for the Ephs, as the Eph supporters watched Puccinelli make quick work of Leah Bush on Court 2, 6-3 and 6-0, to double the Panthers' lead.
Things then began to look quite dire after Hannah Atkinson was outlasted by Blazye in their first-set tiebreaker on Court 3, 7-5, before the latter took control of the match in the second set, winning comfortably, 6-1.
With the Ephs' backs against the wall, Raventos ensured that her team would not go down without a fight, notching the purple and gold their first singles point, with a straight-sets victory over Fields, 6-4, 6-2.
Still within one point of clinching a spot in the National Championship, the Panthers' likeliest candidate was the match on Court 4 between Shin and Heather Boehm, which proved to be an instant classic.
Out of the gates, Boehm cruised to a rather comfortable 6-1, 3-0 lead over the Eph senior. Thereafter, however, momentum began to shift, as Shin rallied her way back to 3-3 in the second set. Two games later at 4-4, Boehm brough Shin and the Ephs to the brink, squandering three break points on Shin's serve, before finally converting the fourth to give herself a chance to serve for the match and the dual.
With the match and the Ephs' season on the line, Shin came up huge in the next game, saving three match points to keep the Ephs alive and reach 5-5.
Shin hadn't won the set yet, however, and she struggled in her very next service game. Again though, the resilient senior managed to stave off several break points, four this time, before closing out the game.
Serving to force a second-set tiebreaker, Boehm was hoping for a change of pace and a comfortable hold-of-serve, but Shin had other ideas, breaking the first-year's serve in just five points to force a decisive third set, after two marathon-esque games just before.
With the momentum now firmly in the Ephs' and Shin's corner, the veteran came out with everything she had left in the third and final set, engineering an early 3-0 lead over Boehm. Though Boehm clawed her way back to 3-2, Shin was unaffected by this, as she swiftly reestablished her break advantage with wins in the next two games, bringing the score to 5-2, before she completed her comeback by breaking Boehm's serve in the very next game.
"It was just an incredible comeback," commented an incredulous Swain when asked about her co-captain's decisive performance. "Linda [Shin] dug in and decided to be the tougher player."
When asked about the turning point in the dual for her side, Swain immediately pointed to Shin's second-set comeback. "When she closed out the second set, the momentum really started to turn in our favor," commented Swain. "It wasn't probably until she was up 5-2 in the third set, though, that I really started to believe that we might win today."
Now with only one point separating the two sides in the overall dual, all attention turned to the remaining two matches on the court.
Buoyed by their senior's breathtaking comeback, Cancio and Mia Gancayco were tasked with finishing the job for the Ephs.
Cancio stuck to her task on Court 6 and was as industrious as ever, slamming the door on her opponent, Maddi Stow, with an impressive 6-2, 6-2 victory to level the dual at 4-4.
Then, the Ephs completed their comeback when Gancayco ruthlessly dealt with Molly Paradies on Court 5, winning a closely contested first set, 6-4, before dealing the finishing blow to the Panthers in the second set, 6-2.
After the match, Swain didn't just praise Shin, she also acknowledged the mental strength it took for Cancio and Gancayco to go out on the court in such a difficult position. "Props to Julia [Cancio] and Mia [Gancayco] to come out there on the courts with us down 4-1 and with Linda down 3-0 in the second set, and get straight to business," reflected Swain. "It was huge for them to realize how important what they were doing was, and I was impressed by their focus."
With their sensational win, the Ephs now have the opportunity to play perennial finalist, Emory, for the third straight season in the National Title bout, with the Ephs winning in 2015 but falling to the Eagles in the 2016 championship.
"Our road hasn't been an easy one this year, so it's fitting that it's not going to be easy now either," commented Swain when asked about how her team would handle the quick turnaround to tomorrow's final. "But that's okay with us. We played a grueling match today, but we will be ready for tomorrow."
The Ephs take on Emory for the National Championship starting at 10 AM EDT on Wednesday morning.
Williams 5, Middlebury 4
- Raventos, Juli/Shin, Linda (WILLIAMS) def. Hughes, Katy/Schossberger, Skylar (MIDDLEBURY) 8-5
- Blazye, Catherine/Orozco, Kaysee (MIDDLEBURY) def. Atkinson, Hannah/Henderson, Chloe (WILLIAMS) 8-4
- Fields, Alexandra/Puccinelli, Christina (MIDDLEBURY) def. Cancio, Julia/Zheng, Emily (WILLIAMS) 8-4
- Raventos, Juli (WILLIAMS) def. Fields, Alexandra (MIDDLEBURY) 6-4, 6-2
- Puccinelli, Christina (MIDDLEBURY) def. Bush, Leah (WILLIAMS) 6-3, 6-0
- Blazye, Catherine (MIDDLEBURY) def. Atkinson, Hannah (WILLIAMS) 7-6(5), 6-1
- Shin, Linda (WILLIAMS) def. Boehm, Heather (MIDDLEBURY) 1-6, 7-5, 6-2
- Gancayco, Mia (WILLIAMS) def. Paradies, Molly (MIDDLEBURY) 6-4, 6-2
- Cancio, Julia (WILLIAMS) def. Stow, Maddi (MIDDLEBURY) 6-2, 6-2
Order of Finish:
Doubles – 3, 1, 2
Singles – 2, 3, 1, 4, 6, 5
Williams: 19-4, nationally ranked #4, regionally ranked #2 (Northeast)
Middlebury: 17-5, nationally ranked #2, regionally ranked #1 (Northeast)