After practicing and competing among themselves for nearly a month after the conclusion of the regular season, Linfield’s women’s tennis players finally get the chance to beat up on a real opponent at the 2011 NCAA Division III Women’s Tennis Championships.
The Wildcats, 15-4 and winners of the Northwest Conference championship tournament back in April, face the University of Texas at Tyler. The two clubs meet Thursday in the first round of the six-team West Regional hosted by Claremont-Mudd-Scripps in Claremont, Calif.
The UT-Tyler Patriots, champions of the American Southwest Conference, bring a 17-7 record to the national tournament. Ranked 30th in the nation and seventh in the West, the Patriots should pose some good competition for the ‘Cats, ranked eighth in the region.
“It’s a pretty even matchup,” said head coach Amy Dames Smith, who said the draw was one she expected.
Linfield and UT-Tyler have never faced one another, but share a few common opponents, including contests against Hardin-Simmons and the University of Redlands earlier this year. Both clubs topped Hardin-Simmons by a score of 7-2, but UT-Tyler defeated Redlands 6-3 while the Wildcats fell to the same foe by a score of 8-1.
The Patriots have also played Whitworth in the opening rounds of the past two national team championships, defeating the Pirates both times. The ‘Cats split two matches with Whitworth this year, losing in the regular season but getting the victory over the Pirates in the NWC tournament final.
The winner of the first-round matchup gets Pomona-Pitzer (16-3) in the regional quarterfinal. The Sagehens, ranked No. 7 in the nation, earned the region’s top seed and a first-round bye after winning the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
This marks the third tournament showing for Linfield; the ‘Cats made consecutive appearances in 2007 and 2008, advancing to the second round in 2007.
Because of the gap between tournament appearances, just two Wildcats have experience at the national level: seniors Sarah Click and Sarah Watanabe. The two competed as doubles partners in the regional quarterfinals against UC-Santa Cruz in 2008.
Yet Linfield still boasts great talent. ITA All-American Abby Olbrich is a two-time singles and doubles conference champion, and has plenty of experience competing on the big stage. She won the singles and doubles titles at the 2009 ITA West Region Small College Championship, and she and Click recently competed at the prestigious Ojai Tournament.
Playing No. 2 doubles will be Sophie Larson and Caroline Brigham (Sr., Eagle, Idaho), and Watanabe and Kiana Nip will play at the No. 3 position. Lexi Thomas will contribute in singles.
To survive and advance to the second round, the Wildcats must play to their strengths – depth and athleticism – and take on a mental toughness.
“We want to play the way we did against Whitworth,” Dames Smith said. “The girls brought a lot of energy and battled through the adversity of being down 2-1 after doubles. We need to bring that same attitude.”
Staying focused and sharp during the long break between the league tournament and the first round of national competition has been a challenge, but Dames Smith said she is proud of the way her team has prepared.
“Everyone is motivated and wants to do well,” said the head coach.
The bottom half of the regional bracket includes three-time defending champion Williams College of Williamstown, Mass.
In addition to the team competition, student-athletes selected to compete in the individual championships will be announced Wednesday.
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