After six consecutive road matches, the women’s tennis team returned to the warm confines of Nelson Recreation Center, where they dealt 8–1 defeats to two ranked opponents, No. 14 Bowdoin on Saturday, April 14, and No. 17 Skidmore on Sunday, April 15.
“Everyone is playing their game and dictating points now,” said Heather Boehm ’20, something they could not quite do last weekend in their loss to No. 2 Williams.
Last weekend, No. 4 Middlebury lost its first Nescac match of the season 5–4 to the Ephs, the defending national and Nescac champions, who have consistently been one of the nation’s best teams since the turn of the century and remain so this year as the last undefeated team in DIII women’s tennis. Even in defeat, Middlebury stuck with Williams in a match that actually could have gone either way.
Nothing is better than home, though, for the Panthers, who had the opportunity to learn from last weekend’s loss and put a week’s worth of practice into effect on their home courts on Saturday and Sunday.
“The team did a great job of coming out in both matches with a lot of energy and really trying to use what we worked on the previous week in practice,” said head coach Rachel Kahan.
Playing on their home courts for the first time in almost a month and for the last time in the regular season meant a great deal to the Panthers.
“We took advantage of the fact that this was one of our few home games this season and made sure our presence was louder than theirs,” Boehm said. “The team definitely missed Christina Puccinelli ’18’s presence on the court, but her sideline support was incredible and definitely helped us stay positive, which isn’t easy to do from the sidelines.”
On Saturday, the Panthers bounced back from the Williams loss by playing excellent tennis from the beginning. Boehm, without her normal doubles partner Puccinelli, who rested her arm over the weekend to prepare for Middlebury’s upcoming three-match weekend, paired with Ann Martin Skelly ’21 to dispose of their Polar Bear opponents in the third doubles slot 8–1 and give the Panthers their first victory of the match.
“Bowdoin is always a good team and is a long-time rival,” said Boehm. “But we came out firing right from the first point.”
As did Middlebury’s other doubles pairs, Katie Hughes ’20 and Skylar Schossberger ’20, and Catherine Blazye ’20 and Maddi Stow ’20. Hughes and Schossberger surrendered one more game in the first slot than Boehm and Skelly did, and Blazye and Stow lost one more in the second slot than Hughes and Schossberger did — meaning, in the three doubles matches, Middlebury outscored Bowdoin 24–6.
Very little changed in Middlebury’s singles matches on Saturday, of which the Panthers won five of six to secure the 8–1 victory, even without Puccinelli, one of their top singles players and a consistent doubles player. After losing last weekend to her Williams opponent, Hughes defeated Bowdoin’s Tess Trinka — who is ranked 16th nationally — 6–1, 6–4 in first singles. And Blazye shut out her opponent in the third slot for her fourth-straight singles victory.
“I believe the key to bouncing back from my losses at Williams to win four matches this weekend was putting last weekend out of mind and focusing on the present moment,” Hughes said. “Losing to Williams was a tiny wake-up call and has motivated us to put in extra time and effort these last couple of weeks so we can set ourselves up the best we can to win nationals.”
Even without Puccinelli, Middlebury dismissed a top-15 opponent, reasserting themselves as a force to be reckoned with.
In Sunday’s match against Skidmore, the Panthers struggled to get going against their non-conference foe.
“We always underestimate how good they are, and we came out flat on Saturday,” Boehm said. “But we can always grind them out in singles, even though they are a very strong team.”
And that is what the Panthers did on Sunday: they ground out two doubles victories, then swept the Thoroughbreds in singles to earn their second 8–1 win in as many days, punctuated by two shutouts orchestrated by Stow and Molly Paradies ’19 in the fifth and sixth slots, respectively.
With two wins, Middlebury moved to 9–2 this spring entering the final two weekends of the regular season. This weekend, Saturday, April 21, and Sunday, April 22, Middlebury will play three matches in Connecticut, one against a DI opponent, Quinnipiac, and two against Nescac foes, Trinity and Wesleyan. Middlebury should beat Trinity, who is 1–5 in the conference, but Wesleyan will be a different beast. Middlebury, Wesleyan and Amherst all lurk behind Williams in the Nescac standings with one loss apiece in conference play, and the next two weekends will go a long way in determining Nescac playoff seedings — since the Panthers play the Mammoths the following weekend in their last match of the regular season.
Middlebury took a step in the right direction this weekend with their actual record and with their play on the courts — an important step if they want to avenge their losses from earlier this season.
“We are playing with confidence and trying to execute our game plans aggressively,” said Kahan about her team’s play over the weekend. “In order to beat teams like Claremont and Williams, I believe it is going to come down to the belief factor that they can do it, playing loose with no fear, and having some fun.”
The regular season never determines who the champion is, but it does demonstrate who is ahead at the time. If the Panthers want to rewrite the regular-season pecking order in the postseason, they must continue to get better, using their energy, relentlessness, and assertiveness from this weekend as building blocks for the future.