“Kind of an important occasion,” women’s tennis Head Coach Luciano Battaglini offhandedly called last Saturday’s epic, history-making match against Gustavus Adolphus.
The Knights’ 5-4 win not only clinched the MIAC championship for Carleton, but also broke a number of impressive traditions the Gusties had been guarding for a couple of decades.
For 20 years, Gustavus had reigned as conference champions. These racquet-wielding autocrats also summed up 214 consecutive regular-season wins within the conference in that time, a remarkable collegiate feat. The last time Carleton won the MIAC crown meanwhile was in 1987, a time before any of the members of the team were born and its coaches were still in knee pants.
The Knights beat Gustavus 5-4 earlier in the season in a non-conference match at the Midwest Invitational, something that had not been accomplished by Carleton in 24 years.
The Knights began play with a tentative grasp on doubles. Kathryn Schmidt ’12 and Erin Gudul ‘12 took first doubles at a close 8-6 and Katherine Greenberg ’14 and Molly Hemes ’14 won third doubles at an even closer 9-7. Anne Lombardi ’14 and Bridget Doyle ’13 nearly pulled out their win 4-10 in a tiebreaker.
Moving into singles, Hemes won the first match handily, or in Battaglini’s words, she “played strategically perfect” at 6-2, 6-3 giving Carleton a little more breathing room at 3-1 on the match. With her win, Hemes also earned the title of MIAC player-of-the-week. Greenberg followed with a loss at 6-1, 6-4, displaying the pluck of a true Knight to come back from down 0-5 in the second set. Expressing the dominance of a seasoned senior player, Schmidt produced promising results at 6-3, 6-4, placing the team score at 4-2 with 3 matches remaining.
As has been yet another tradition in high-pressure matches like this one, the three remaining matches all went into tiebreakers, with the overall match still dependent on every individual match. Gudul fell first 2-6, 6-4, 11-13. Doyle then landed short after a comeback 3-6, 5-7, 6-10.
Similar to the previous match against Gustavus, the fate of the match was in the hands of sophomore Lombardi at the third singles position. She came up ahead, taking down her GAC opponent 4-6, 6-2, 10-4. On top of the glory of clinching the championship for the Knights, Battaglini praised Lombardi even more, saying she “had, in my opinion, the best overall match of the day because her opponent played great but she held herself mentally strong throughout the entire match, ups and downs.”
“She felt relaxed, she felt confident, she played very smart most of the match, she didn’t go for too much when she couldn’t, she definitely took charge when she had to. I could see the confidence in her eyes; it’s key in any athlete. You don’t play smart because you’re nervous and not thinking or you play smart because you’re thinking and you’re confident.”
Assistant Coach Zach Pruit echoed Battaglini’s statement about the whole team. “It was impressive to see the way that the team competed and the poise with which they played. Over the past few years, the players have developed a level of confidence and determination when they are competing, regardless of which opponent is across the net. It was neat to see the confidence with which they competed on Sunday, even when going up against a team with so much history.”
The Knights ended the season with a 16-5 overall record and remain undefeated 10-0 in the MIAC. They also landed at the #24 ranking in the nation. Their records give the Knights the #1 seed in the MIAC championships, another first, breaking the tradition ever since the playoffs 6 years ago that Gustavus has not entered the tournament as the #1 seed.
Battaglini added about the match, “We’ve got to give credit to Gustavus. They played really hard. They always try. Their players did a good job, but we were a bit better. We wanted to succeed, we played really hard, and did a bit better overall when it counted the most.”
So what are Battaglini and the team thinking about now? “I’m excited for next weekend. It’s gonna be a battle in the semifinals. Who knows what’s gonna happen. If we play good we have a lot of chances, if we don’t play good, anything can happen.” The Knights hope to get a view to some of these chances as they play the lowest remaining seed in the semifinals of the tournament at 9 a.m. on Saturday, May 5 in St. Peter.