Capturing the Northwest Conference regular-season championship confirmed what Linfield women’s tennis already knew heading into the 2017 season: the Wildcats had both the talent and the intangibles to contend for glory at the conference, regional and national stage.
But a tournament title and automatic berth in the NCAA playoffs admittedly would have been even sweeter. A loss in the championship match of the league tournament left the ‘Cats, nationally ranked all year, out of the postseason picture, a setback that only serves to fuel Linfield’s competitive fire moving forward.
Ella Riddle, the NWC Player of the Year who went undefeated at No. 1 singles and received a second career invitation to the NCAA singles championships, highlighted a core group of six upperclassmen that set the example and provided great leadership for six freshmen, three of which played in at least ¾ of Linfield’s varsity matches.
“Regardless of whether they were playing regularly in the lineup or not, all of the freshmen boosted our talent level and competitiveness level. They were a huge part of our success,” said co-head coach Lisa Macy-Baker. “Our practices were on a different level this year, on the level that it takes to win a championship.”
Linfield’s first major test came early in the NWC season: a three-match stretch against Lewis & Clark (twice) and Whitman, regular championship contenders, that left no room for error. Stepping up to the challenge, the Wildcats split results against the Pioneers, earning the conference team point by virtue of aggregate score, and edged the Blues 5-4 on the road.
“We learned a lot about our team during that time,” Macy-Baker said. “We learned that we were gritty, that we had the necessary edge and desire that it takes to success at a high level.”
Another key portion of the season came during a Spring Break trip to Texas. Linfield went 2-2, losing two close matches to nationally ranked opponents, but came away with a close-knit team and an adjusted doubles lineup that yielded increasingly positive results down the stretch.
Sliding up to partner with Riddle at No. 1 doubles, Basia Kopecka factored into victories in Linfield’s last six matches at the top of the ladder. Rookie Riley Clayeux stepped up her doubles game over the final few weeks, proving a good match for Elsa Harris in second-flight action and coming up clutch in the tournament championship to help to help Linfield gain a 2-1 advantage heading into singles play. Marisa Doveri and freshman Michelle Ly, meanwhile, were solid all year at No. 3 doubles, posting an 11-4 record, including an 8-1 mark against NWC opponents.
Another newcomer, Sarah Sweet, posted a 13-2 record in singles, while classmates Kelsey Bartlett, McKenna Stephenson and Jesse Vezo combined for 12 additional singles wins.
After dispatching George Fox 5-0 in NWC Tournament semifinal, Linfield’s season came down to a nail biter against Whitman. In the end, it was likely experience in big moments that won the day for the Blues, who claimed their fifth NWC Tournament title in six years by a score of 5-3.
“On paper, Lewis & Clark and Whitman were statistically stronger teams, so we knew the end was going to be extremely competitive. It really could have gone either way, so many matches were tight,” Macy-Baker said. “Each and every one of Whitman’s players, except one, has had experience in that moment. We gained that experience, and it will fuel our fire.”
Aside from graduating senior Courtney Mostful, Linfield’s only four-year player who, along with junior Sierra Lemon, provided great leadership for her teammates, the Wildcats are expected to return everyone in 2018.