CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. - The road to National Title #10 was longer, more winding, and at times even seemed less likely than some of the Ephs' more recent championships, but the thrilling journey came to an appropriately climactic conclusion on Wednesday, when the Ephs met the Eagles of Emory University in the National Championship dual for the 3rd consecutive season and 6th time in the two teams' prostigious histories.
Both of the Ephs' two most recent encounters with the Eagles in the National Championship resulted in 5-4 decisions, first for the Ephs two years ago in the 2015 title tilt and then for the Eagles in the 2016 finale.
It was only fitting then that the 2017 NCAA Championship would be decided by the same margin, with a three-set match between two of the best Division III singles players in the country to determine who would win the National Title.
After a rocky start for the Ephs' Juli Raventos, faltering 6-1 in the opening set against the Eagles' Bridget Harding, the Eph junior came back firing in the second. The talented Costa Rican established an early lead, and with the second set on her racket at 5-3, the Northeast's second-ranked singles player made no mistake closing out the set to force a decider.
With the tide of momentum shifting in the Ephs' favor, Raventos picked up in the third set right where she had left off at the end of the second, again orchestrating an early lead to put all the pressure on the Atlantic South's top-ranked singles player. Down 3-1, Harding held her serve to pull within one game of Raventos, only to see her purple and gold counterpart do the same to reconsolidate her two-game advantage a few minutes later.
With the pressure firmly back on the shoulders of the Eagle junior, Raventos crafted a break point in the next game, and converted it with an explosive, cross-court forehand winner that won the Eph her second break of the third set and a chance to serve for the 2017 NCAA team title.
Raventos was at her most ruthless in the final game, and made no mistake on match point, whipping an inside-in forehand approach shot before coolly placing the subsequent volley into the open court, cuing deafening cheers from the Eph players and fans alike, as both celebrated the purple and gold's 5-4 triumph and their 8th National Championship in the last decade.
"This [NCAA Championship] in particular is really special," managed an emotional Alison Swain - coach of the Williams women's tennis program - after winning her 8th NCAA Title as a coach and improving her NCAA Tournament coaching record to an astounding 48-2 all-time. "To play two, 5-4 matches two days in-a-row: incredible. Everybody was ready, every single person. And it takes a lot to get to that preparedness, especially after our match yesterday. I couldn't be more proud of my players."
Right from the outset on Wednesday, however, you couldn't tell that the Ephs had endured a grueling 5-4 semifinal dual with NESCAC-foe, Middlebury, less than 18 hours before.
The Ephs claimed the first two doubles matches off the court, first through Julia Cancio and Emily Zheng's 8-5 win over Paula Castro and Michelle DeMeo on Court 3, then through senior co-captain Hannah Atkinson and her partner, first-year Chloe Henderson's, 8-4 win over Michelle Satterfield and Daniela Lopez on Court 2.
The Ephs had a chance to take a commanding 3-0 lead into singles, but Raventos and her partner, semifinal hero and other Eph senior co-captain, Linda Shin, were unable to close out their match when they were serving at 7-6, squandering all four of their match points on Shin's serve, including an overhead that Raventos sent long of the baseline.
The top-ranked doubles pairing in the Atlantic South, Harding and Katarina Su, proved to be unforgiving of the two Ephs' errors, and they eventually managed to hold serve. With the match level again at 7-7, the Eagle pairing took over, and grinded out wins in the next two games as well to put some wind into the Eagles' wings heading into singles.
"It's always disappointing to lose the last doubles match going into singles," agreed Swain when asked about how that affected her team's transition into singles. "But we've worked all season on clean-slating it going into singles. The girls did a good job with that today, not thinking too much about it."
Only briefly ruing their missed opportunity to go up 3-0, the Ephs were judicious in quickly shifting their focus ahead toward singles, where they required three wins.
The first two matches off the court saw the two teams trade points.
First, Castro drew the Eagles level with the Ephs in the dual with her win over Cancio on Court 6. The Eagle senior outlasted the Eph junior in the first-set tiebreaker, 7-2, and then made things more easy for herself in the second set, closing out the match 6-3 to get the Eagles on the board in singles.
Just minutes after the conclusion of the match on Court 6, Mia Gancayco celebrated her 21st birthday with a win of her own on Court 5 over Melissa Goodman. The junior renewed the Ephs' one-point advantage with a 6-3, 6-2 win over Goodman to pull the Ephs to within two points of clinching the title.
The next two matches both fell in favor of the Eagles, however, as both Eph senior co-captains fell 6-4, 6-4 to their respective opponents, first Atkinson to Lopez, then Shin to Su.
All of a sudden so close to winning their third NCAA Championship in just the last four years, the Eagles needed only one of the remaining matches on the top two courts.
The Ephs had other ideas, however, as Leah Bush, who had thus far struggled in the 2017 postseason, finally asserted herself on the grandest of stages.
Though the Eph sophomore missed her chance to close out the opening set on Court 2 against Michelle Satterfield when she was serving at 6-5, she quickly made amends in the tiebreaker, producing some magic of her own at 4-4 to win Satterfield's service point. With two serves at 5-4, Bush was near-perfect at closing out the set this time around, winning both of her two service points to take the first-set tiebreaker, 7-4.
Riding her wave of momentum, Bush opened up an early lead in the second set with a break of Sattefield's serve, before the Eagle senior could gather herself after her first-set setback in order to mount a response. Though Satterfield broke back on Bush's serve at 3-1, the energetic Eph sophomore was undaunted, and proceed to break Satterfield again in the very next game, before consolidating it with a service hold to pull within one game of winning the match.
Satterfield had it all to left to do, but Bush proved to be too much for her, as the Eph sophomore didn't wait until her own service game to clip the wings of the Eagle senior, breaking Satterfield's serve for a third time in the second set to level the overall dual at 4-4.
From there, it was all down to Raventos, who more than made up for her doubles mistake, clinching the 2017 NCAA Team Title for the Ephs with a three-set win over Harding.
"Both Leah and Juli wanted to step up in singles, and they did exactly that," praised Swain when asked about her top two singles players' outstanding performances. "They didn't let, in Leah's case, yesterday or, in Juli's case, doubles today affect their singles play, and they were both just incredible."
When asked what made this title particularly special, Swain immediately pointed to the heart that this year's team showed in overcoming adversity. "I'm so proud of the girls for overcoming the obstacles they've faced this year," commented Swain, referring in-part to the multitude of injuries that plagued her team all the way up until the postseason. "They have all done a great job, and when you win, especially the way we won today, it's always an incredible feeling."
Though the Eph team's remarkable, title-winning season is now over, five Ephs are set to compete in the 2017 NCAA Individual Singles and Doubles Championships that start on Thursday. In singles, both Raventos and Bush will compete tomorrow morning at 9 AM EDT against Wiktoria Plawska from Lewis and Clark College and Lauren O'Malley from John Carroll College respectively. In doubles, Raventos and Shin will start their back-to-back NCAA title defense against Megan Humphreys and Bridgid McGuire from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, alongside teammates Atkinson and Henderson, who will take on Brooke Donnely and Tessa Hill from Washington and Lee University. The first round of doubles matches will follow the conclusion of the first two rounds of singles later in the afternoon.
Williams 5, Emory 4
- Harding, Bridget/Su, Katarina (EMORY) def. Raventos, Juli/Shin, Linda (WILLIAMS) 9-7
- Atkinson, Hannah/Henderson, Chloe (WILLIAMS) def. Lopez, Daniela/Satterfield, Michelle (EMORY) 8-4
- Cancio, Julia/Zheng, Emily (WILLIAMS) def. Catstro, Paula/DeMeo, Michelle (EMORY) 8-5
- Raventos, Juli (WILLIAMS) def. Harding, Bridget (EMORY) 1-6, 6-3, 6-2
- Bush, Leah (WILLIAMS) def. Satterfield, Michelle (EMORY) 7-6(4), 6-2
- Lopez, Daniela (EMORY) def. Atkinson, Hannah (WILLIAMS) 6-4, 6-4
- Su, Katarina (EMORY) def. Shin, Linda (WILLIAMS) 6-4, 6-4
- Gancayco, Mia (WILLIAMS) def. Goodman, Melissa (EMORY) 6-3, 6-2
- Castro, Paula (EMORY) def. Cancio, Julia (WILLIAMS) 7-6(2), 6-3
Order of Finish:
Doubles – 3, 2, 1
Singles – 6, 5, 3, 4, 2, 1
Williams: 20-4, nationally ranked #4, regionally ranked #2 (Northeast)
Emory: 17-7, nationally ranked #3, regionally ranked #1 (Atlantic South)