As the saying goes, it sure is hard to beat a team three times. Linfield’s netters can attest to that after powering through the Northwest Conference regular season unscathed (12-0) but falling to Whitman in the league championship match, consequently losing a berth in the national tournament.
The ‘Cats had twice defeated the Missionaries twice during the regular season, but came up short in the rubber match.
“That last match at the conference tournament was a rough one that wasn’t telling of who we were as a team,” said head coach Amy Dames Smith.
Had the team not been hampered by a couple of untimely injuries and performed better in doubles that day, a second consecutive trip to the NCAA playoffs was surely in the cards. But such a successful season cannot and should not be boiled down to one outcome; plenty of good things had to happen for the ‘Cats to have even been in position to make the national tournament.
Winning its first regular-season title in four years, Linfield posted a perfect record in league play: 12 wins, zero losses. The club opened the season with nine straight victories, the closest match a 6-3 win over Whitman. Not even a string of tough losses to some nationally-ranked nonconference opponents could stem Linfield’s momentum, as the club got back on track once league play resumed and closed out the year with four more wins.
“There was an element of surprise there early in the season to have started off as strong as we did, but as the season went on that was just the expectation,” Dames Smith said.
Linfield’s depth was an incredible asset, as the team dropped just three doubles sets (out of 36) throughout the entire conference schedule. Making that statistic that much more impressive was the fact that the Wildcats had two freshmen in the lineup: Kaila Nip and Kelly Watanabe. The youngsters’ ability to step up their game to the collegiate level, as well as seamlessly assimilate into the team, was another key part of Linfield’s success.
“This was definitely a season where we really came together as a team, as far as chemistry and support for one another,” Dames Smith said. “I think that our freshmen really contributed to that feeling.”
Kaila Nip also paired with older sister Kiana, a senior, to provide the most consistency and stability of the lineup. The siblings were undefeated in conference doubles action and were similarly perfect in their respective singles matches.
But the one making headlines all season long, and rightly so, was Abby Olbrich. The senior capped off a phenomenal career by going 12-7 at No. 1 singles, partnering with Caroline Brigham to record a 13-7 win-loss mark at No. 1 doubles, becoming a four-time NWC all-star, being named ITA West Region Women’s Senior Player of the Year and receiving a second invitation to the NCAA Division III Championships in singles. Olbrich graduates with a 54-23 career record, good for the sixth-most victories of all time, and is the only player in Linfield history to have competed at the national tournament as an individual.