Extending its run of consecutive Northwest Conference Tournament appearances to 17 seasons under second-year head coach Lisa Macy-Baker, Linfield enjoyed another successful season on the tennis courts.
Finishing with a 14-6 overall record, including 12-5 within Division III and 9-3 against conference opponents, the Wildcats placed third in the team standings, losing only to the top two squads. The inability to get past Lewis & Clark, which twice defeated Linfield during the regular season before knocking the ‘Cats out of the league tournament, spelled the eventual end for the Wildcats’ season.
“We put our best foot forward and we competed hard. At the end we didn’t come out on top,” Macy-Baker said. “Even though we were more talented this season, so was the league, and so were Lewis & Clark and Whitman.”
Reflecting the ever-increasing strength and competitiveness of the NWC, three programs - Whitman, Lewis & Clark and Linfield - were counted among the nation’s best all season long. After defeating a pair of nationally ranked nonconference opponents in late February, the Wildcats earned their spot in the poll and maintained it for the remainder of the year, climbing as high as No. 34.
Ever hungry for success, however, Macy-Baker looks to get the program to a position of not just contending for, but winning championships.
“It’s definitely where we want to be,” Macy-Baker said on the team’s third-place conference finish and national attention, “but the sights are still higher.”
Individually, the Wildcats had plenty of opportunities to celebrate this year. Seniors Kaila Nip and Kelly Watanabe each surpassed the 100-win plateau, while freshman Ella Riddle earned recognition as the ITA West Rookie of the Year and became the first Wildcat to win a match at the national tournament, attaining all-America status.
“It was an exciting end to the year,” Macy-Baker said. “Being at nationals and seeing the strength of each player, mentally and physically, really fueled Ella’s fire. Ideally, that experience trickles down to the rest of your team and that’s what we want to happen.”
With an 18-4 record, including 17-2 in D3 action, Riddle led a quintet of talented freshman that had an immediate and substantial impact on the program. Four rookies - Riddle, Basia Kopecka, Marisa Doveri and Courtney Hammagren - played major roles in the starting lineup while a fifth - Sierra Lemon - gained experience, and a fair number of victories, in exhibition matches.
Linfield’s veterans provided valuable guidance to the team’s youth. Limited to doubles play only due to injury, sophomore Mackenzie Fraser masterfully fulfilled her role as a steadying force for Riddle at No. 1 doubles. Fourth-year seniors Nip, Watanabe and Gretchen Jernstedt set the tone for the rest of the squad with leadership and tenacity.
With continued focus on strong doubles play, Linfield posted a .767 overall win percentage in tandem action and held the advantage after doubles in 16 of 20 matches, sweeping the three flights on 12 occasions. All three pairs won 12 or more matches, including Nip and Watanabe, who went 15-4 to cap off a lengthy and prolific run as doubles partners.
“That’s the perfect example of what beautiful chemistry is,” Macy-Baker said of Nip and Watanabe’s partnership. “We were always confident in their ability to play together, dissect a match together and bring out the best in each other, and that’s what you want in a doubles team.”
Particularly with its No. 3 tandem departing due to graduation, Linfield must continue to develop chemistry in doubles, as well as improve its match stamina and pattern play with regard to singles play, if it is to climb back to the top of the Northwest Conference.
“Stamina isn’t necessary physicality,” Macy-Baker said. “It’s a mental understanding of how a match is played out and how to mentally and physically stay in a match from the beginning to the end. That’s the biggest area of improvement for us.”
Faced with an achievable challenge that can be overcome as the team matures, the Wildcats are certain to remain one of the teams to beat in the Northwest Conference.