In a battle of Nescac heavyweights, the No. 2 Williams women’s tennis team delivered the first two punches and outlasted No. 5 Middlebury 5–4 on Saturday, April 7, in a match reminiscent of the two teams’ showdown in the semifinals of last season’s NCAA tournament, when Williams ended Middlebury’s season with a 5–4 victory.
Over the past two seasons, the rivalry between Middlebury and Williams has reached a new stratosphere, as they have faced off in the Nescac championship game each of the past two seasons, and in the NCAA tournament last year as well. During this time, the teams have met five times in all.
Even after a delayed start due to the men’s match between Williams and Middlebury, Lansing Chapman Rink was abuzz from the moment the Nescac rivals took to the court on Saturday afternoon.
Christina Puccinelli ’19 said, “the energy was palpable,” all afternoon and into the evening. “Each player on both teams came prepared for a long day,” she added. And a long day they got.
The Ephs scored first, jumping on the Panthers to take the first two doubles matches in the first and second slot. The Panthers salvaged a point at third doubles, when Christina Puccinelli ’19 and Heather Boehm ’20 climbed out of a 5–2 hole to defeat Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio and Emily Zheng 9–7.
And then Catherine Blazye ’20 tied the match at two by quickly dismissing Chloe Henderson 6–2, 6–0 in fourth singles. Just like that, it was a new match between the fierce rivals, as each needed three more wins to secure their biggest victory in the conference regular season.
Instead of folding after falling behind the second-ranked Ephs, the Panthers stayed the course and remained confident.
“Although we were down 1-2 after doubles, we did a very good job of switching our attention immediately to singles and heading into our next matches with confidence and focus,” Puccinelli said.
But Williams came right back to take the next two matches in straight sets in the second and first slots, putting themselves one win away from victory.
With her team’s back against the wall, Boehm won her second match of the day to keep Middlebury alive, even after losing her first set to Leah Bush 2–6. She took the next set 6–4, before Bush retired, ceding the match to Boehm in the third slot. The sophomore continued her strong spring, extending her unbeaten streak in singles to nine matches, as she breathed some life back into Middlebury’s sails for the second time on Saturday.
Williams would not be denied though, sealing the match in the fifth slot where Mia Gancayco defeated Skylar Schossberger ’20 6–1, 6–3 to put the Ephs ahead 5–3.
Perhaps as telling as anything on Saturday, Maddi Stow ’20 won the last match of the day by defeating Julia Cancio 7–5, 6–4 in the sixth slot after Williams had won the match. Stow’s victory had no bearing on the grander scheme of Saturday’s match, but the sophomore still managed to rally to beat her opponent in straight sets.
“We ended up losing, but we remained positive and composed until the last shot was hit,” said Puccinelli. “It also helped to end on a high note, with our sophomore Maddi Stow closing the night out with a win.”
In the end, only one match separated the Nescac rivals on Saturday, just like their final match of 2017. No one on Middlebury believes Saturday did anything to separate the two teams.
“I do not believe there was any difference in ability which affected Saturday’s matchup,” Schossberger said. “The fact is anybody can lose to anybody on any given day.”
Puccinelli echoed her teammates’ words, saying “To be perfectly honest, given the talent on both teams, I think the match could have gone either way. They happened to come out on top this time, but we came away from the match with absolute confidence that we have what it takes to win in the future.”
Of course, the Panthers would love another shot at their nemesis, after having demonstrated again they could play with the Ephs.
“The goal is to get another chance at Williams,” said Blazye. “I can’t wait to see what the rest of the season hold for our team.”
Right now, Williams is the last undefeated team in the Nescac (11–0) and seems primed to make runs at its sixth Nescac championship in eight years and ninth NCAA championship in the last 11 years.
If the Panthers (7–2) want another shot at their rivals, they will need to buckle down for the rest of their Nescac schedule, which includes bouts with No. 14 Bowdoin, No. 29 Trinity, No. 4 Wesleyan and No. 8 Amherst. They showed considerable mettle on Saturday, despite the final result. Replicating that form the rest of the way will be key to earning another match against Williams, since another meeting would likely be in a higher stakes match.
If history repeats itself, they will meet again in the Nescac or NCAA tournaments. And if history repeats itself, Middlebury may come out on top next time around. Remember, Middlebury won in the regular season last year but lost to the Ephs in Nescacs and NCAAs — The Panthers certainly recall that fact.
“We would love to get the chance to play Williams again in the post-season,” said Puccinelli. “Not only is it always fun to play our rivals, but we’ve also developed great relationships with the players on their team. Of course, we now have the added incentive of staging a comeback, so stay tuned.”