Battling through one of the closest playoff races in its history, the Linfield women’s tennis team reversed an early losing trend and closed the regular season on a 4-2 run to earn the fourth and final spot in the Northwest Conference tournament.
Despite not successfully defending their regular-season title, the Wildcats achieved a winning record (7-5) in league matches, finishing with five points in the final team standings to tie for fourth place.
“We had a bit of a rocky start with health and playing matches without a complete lineup,” said head coach Amy Dames Smith. “The important thing is that we finished the season strong.”
The turning point of the year came relatively early – in late February – when the then 1-4 Wildcats scored a close 5-4 victory over Whitworth in a nip-and-tuck match that wasn’t decided until the next-to-last singles flight. The win came in the midst of a four-match win streak, the longest of the season, which turned around a 0-4 start to 2013.
A young lineup, featuring three sophomores and a freshman, meshed well together both on and off the court to create a team-first environment that was a definite highlight of the year.
“One of our team goals was to have strong performances in doubles,” Dames Smith said. “If you were to look at our results, you might say doubles was a weakness for us this year, but at the same time we really focused on being strong, supportive, positive doubles partners.”
There was certainly a direct correlation between how Linfield performed in doubles and the final outcome of each match. The Wildcats were 6-1 in matches in which they held the advantage after tandem play, and 2-9 in matches in which they dug themselves a hole.
Individually, Caroline Brigham, Gretchen Jernstedt and Kelly Watanabe paced the ‘Cats with nine wins apiece. As one of the team’s leaders, along with lone senior Lexi Thomas, Brigham “set a really good example for her teammates of what it means to work hard and to be confident on the tennis court,” Dames Smith said.
Watanabe, who pulled out several close matches at No. 6 singles, teamed with Kaila Nip to post the team’s best record in doubles action (10-6, 9-1 NWC) while playing primarily in the third flight. Brigham and newcomer Kwynn Ecton won six more matches for the Wildcats, and Gernstedt and Thomas battled some of the top duos on the conference as Linfield’s No. 1 pair for much of the year.
As the fourth seed in the NWC Tournament, the Wildcats had a tough assignment in trying to take down regular-season champion Whitman, which did not lose a match to a conference opponent all year and handily brought Linfield’s season to an end with a 6-0 victory.
But with nearly the entire roster returning next season, it’s a sure bet the ‘Cats will be right back in the thick of things.
“No doubt, the conference is continuing to remain competitive and grow stronger, which helps us to be stronger and more competitive as well,” Dames Smith said. “That day in and day out match experience in dual matches really allows (our players) to grow and develop.”