Women’s tennis wins one at NCAA tournament, loses to No. 2 UNC

by Henry Arndt | 5/11/15 6:01pm

After receiving its first bid to the NCAA tournament in program history, the women’s tennis team defeated No. 49 College of William and Mary in the opening round before falling to No. 2 University of North Carolina, last year’s runner-up for the title. The first post-season win for the Big Green provided a culminating end to a season that saw the Dartmouth tennis program reach new heights, despite falling short of the Ivy League title.

“Obviously, the goal is to win [the Ivy League title] next year, but with what we’ve accomplished this year, we’ve achieved so many of our goals that it almost didn’t matter that we didn’t win the Ivy League,” Katherine Yau ’16 said. “We’re just going to set the bar higher next year.”

The weekend saw the team play its final match of the spring, but Taylor Ng ’17 will return to competition on May 20 at the NCAA Singles Championship in Waco, Texas. Ivy League Player of the Year Ng went undefeated in conference play at the No. 1 spot, which earned her automatic qualification for the championship — one of only 15 players in the country with a guaranteed spot. Ng will be the first Dartmouth women’s tennis player to compete in the singles championship.

“For the NCAA team tournament, our team mentality was to win the whole thing,” Ng said. “My mentality for [the NCAA singles championship] is to win the whole thing. It starts the first match, I just want to represent Dartmouth well and play confidently and play with the pride I always do for Dartmouth.”

On Saturday, the women kicked off their tournament run at the UNC Cone-Kenfield Tennis Center in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, with a 9 a.m. match against William and Mary (16-7). While the contest was the Big Green’s tournament debut, William and Mary enjoyed much more tournament experience as it was competing in its 20th NCAA tournament.

Though new to the tournament, the Big Green was familiar with the William and Mary team, having opened its fall season on William and Mary’s campus in the Tribe Invitational. At the invitational, Dartmouth went 3-2 against William and Mary in singles with a notable three-set loss for Ng at the one spot to Tribe senior Jeltje Loomans, who has been ranked as high as No. 54 in the nation in singles.

The Dartmouth team that William and Mary encountered in the fall, however, was not the same one that went on to be ranked as high as No. 18 in the nation on the back of a 11-match winning streak and a first-ever ECAC championship and not the same Big Green team that ended the Tribe’s NCAA tournament run in the first round this past weekend.

On Saturday, the Big Green stole the doubles point from a Tribe lineup that included the No. 67 doubles pair in the nation and finished the job in singles, clinching the match at 4-1.

Dartmouth got easy 8-2, 8-3 wins from its No. 2 and No. 3 doubles pairs, respectively, which gave it the early 1-0 advantage going into singles.

At No. 4 singles, Jacqueline Crawford ’17 wasted no time in giving the Big Green its second point of the day, dropping only one game in the match. Julia Schroeder ’18, who had found herself in a position to clinch a match victory several times in the spring season, bucked that trend and came off the hard courts shortly after Crawford with a 6-2, 6-1 win of her own.

“[Crawford] and [Schroeder] really took care of business, and that gave us an extra push that made us want to keep fighting and keep competing so we could be the one to get that fourth point,” Ng said. “It was really cool to see not only that they won, but that they won definitively.”

Up 3-0, the Big Green found itself on the precipice of history, but it was unclear which player would secure the final win. Yau lost her match at No. 2, granting the Tribe a slimmer of hope with its first point of the day. At No. 3 and No. 6 respectively, Kristina Mathis ’18 and Akiko Okuda ’15 were both up a set, but locked in tight matches. Mathis had won her first 7-5, and Okuda had scraped out her first in a well-played tiebreaker.

As their matches inched toward conclusion, Ng found herself down 4-2 to William and Mary’s Leeza Nemchinov, ranked No. 53 in the nation, in the deciding third set.

Ultimately, Mathis ended the anxiety for the Big Green, winning her match in a second set tiebreaker and bringing the team a decisive win in its tournament debut.

“If you can keep the other team off the scoreboard, you keep their sense of hope away from the match,” head coach Bob Dallis said. “We were thinking we’re going to get it, No. 3 or No. 6, what’s going on, and we finally got the win at 3.”

In its round of 32 match, Dartmouth drew UNC, a perennial women’s tennis powerhouse. UNC’s top six singles players include three players ranked inside the top 20 nationally. The only Ivy League player with a national singles ranking is Dartmouth’s own Ng, who sits just barely in the top 100 at 97.

For the Big Green, the occasion did not offer the same sort of pressure that comes with playing a peer institution, but it provided a unique opportunity for the women to cross racquets with a team playing at the highest level of collegiate tennis. In order for Dartmouth to keep reaching greater heights as a program, these are exactly the type of opportunities that will prove invaluable in the team’s collective development — the chance to compete against the very best and measure the degree of difference.

“I didn’t get to see other people playing as much, but I think everyone was just playing their best tennis and I think that was partially a product of the fact that we were the underdog,” Ng said. “All the pressure was on UNC, and we just wanted to put everything out that we had and I think we really did shock them. We draw a lot of confidence from that match. A few changes here and there and we could beat them.”

Although UNC clinched the match 4-0, ending Dartmouth’s season, at no point in the contest did the Tarheels walk over the Big Green as their disparate rankings and UNC’s pedigree might have suggested.

In a reversal of the Big Green’s opening match, it lost the doubles point by dropping at No. 2 and No. 3. At the time the point was decided, Ng and Mathis were still playing at the No. 1 spot against Tarheels’ No. 1 pair, which is ranked No. 35 in the nation, and retired the match tied at 4-4.

UNC clinched the match with singles victories at the No. 2, No. 4 and No. 5 spots, and the remaining three matches did not finish. At No. 2, Yau lost her first set 7-5 in the tiebreaker and dropped her second set 6-4 against the No. 16 singles player in the nation.

Okuda was up 7-5, 4-3 when UNC clinched, and Mathis had just started her third set after splitting her first two against the No. 20 player in the nation. Ng, who will now prepare for the NCAA singles championship, was down 7-5, 2-2 when the match ended.

The score was lopsided, but the margin of victory for the dominant UNC team was likely slimmer than many, including the Tarheels, would have imagined.

“This year we beat 11 teams ranked inside the top 75, which is really a mark of a very good team,” Dallis said. “Now we’re playing this next level team, so we’re saying, ‘How are we going to stack up, and how are we going to compete to give them a difficult time? What do they do a little better than us and what can we do to improve?’ We were able to walk away from the match and say there’s not a very big difference.”

The match marks the end of a successful season for the Big Green, who will lose only Okuda after graduation. Dartmouth will return next year with its sight set on bringing the Ivy League title to Hanover for the first time since 2011, which was the program’s first.