When the dust settled at the NCAA Division III Women’s Tennis Team Championships at Claremont last week, the final team standing was a long shot winner. True, they were competitive – seventeen times during the season they blanked their opponent, twelve of those being 9-0 drubbings – but the Athenas of Claremont Mudd Scripps (CMS) had stumbled twice in 2018. On one weekend in March, CMS lost nailbiters to both Emory and Williams, two powerhouse programs who regularly share the wealth atop Division III standings.
Those two losses loomed big for the Athenas, nestled in third place behind their dominant counterparts. After sweeping their opponents at the SCIAC Championships, then doing the same at NCAA Regionals (a combined 10-0 tally), the Athenas knew that they’d have to find a way to overcome either Emory or Williams to earn CMS’s first NCAA Women’s Tennis crown.
As it turned out, they’d have to defeat both rivals to earn a tournament victory.
“We knew we were pretty good,” said fourth year CMS head coach David Schwarz, “but with Williams and Emory being as dominant as they have been for so long, it was hard to perceive us as anything but the underdogs.”
Surrounded by their home crowd as host of the Division III finals, those underdogs eliminated #11 MIT with ease. But their next opponent, the Williams Ephs, carried a 37-match undefeated streak into the semifinals. When Williams notched their third win of the penultimate match against CMS to take a 3-1 lead, the foregone conclusion seemed imminent.
Despite a stunning loss in #1 singles, Claremont refused to give up. In time, they would rally to gain the lead at 4-3. Rebecca Berger, a freshman competing at #5 singles, was firmly in charge of her match against Williams’ Mia Gancayco, eventually locking up a 6-2, 6-4 win to send CMS into the championship finale.
Again the Athenas faced a perennial rival, and again the women found themselves trailing top-seeded Emory after doubles competition. The see-saw match that ensued was dramatic to say the least, as both teams traded blows early and often.
At #4 singles, CMS’ Kyla Scott notched the first Athena win in singles play, a three-set triumph for the senior.
“It was really surreal playing out there,” Scott told reporters post-game. “I’ve been playing since I was 18 years old and this is probably my last competitive match. I really just wanted to leave no regrets.”
Tiebreak wins by CMS’ Caroline Cox and Catherine Allen balanced a victory by the Eagles’ Daniela Lopez, leaving the overall championship tied at 4-4. Just as it had in the semifinals, all attention turned to court 5 and Claremont’s Rebecca Berger. True to form, Berger tallied a convincing 6-2, 6-3 win to earn CMS it’s first ever women’s tennis title.
“We felt we were good,” Schwarz said afterwards, “but until someone knocked off Williams and Emory… you can’t pretend you are there until you do it. It’s one thing to believe it. It’s a whole other thing to do it.”
The Athenas wrapped up their season at 29-2, but more importantly, they left everything that had to offer on the court. Except, of course, the shiny new trophy.
“Everyone was just determined to give it everything they had,” said Scott. “It turned out to be our day.”
– Darryl Nash