Women’s Tennis Knocks of No. 8 Amherst, Eyes Potential Williams Rematch

By Andrew Rigas

The women’s tennis team continued to roll in their last match of the regular season, when they defeated No. 8 Amherst 6–3 on Saturday, April 28 for their eighth straight victory. Now they turn to the Nescac playoffs, which the Panthers enter as the second seed behind undefeated Williams.

Even with Williams’ dominance this season and in the past, the Panthers firmly believe they can parlay the play that has led to their recent winning streak into the first Nescac championship in program history, avenging a loss to Williams in the process if necessary.

“We are very excited to have a potential Williams rematch,” said Katy Hughes ’20. “We lost in the regular season to Williams 4-5, so we are looking forward to this rematch. However, we are focusing on one match at a time. But if we do play Williams I am confident that we will win.”

Since its loss to Williams on April 7, Middlebury had won seven matches in a row leading up to the Amherst match last Saturday, playing its best tennis of the season to beat Quinnipiac, a DI opponent, No. 18 Skidmore, No. 14 Bowdoin and No. 5 Wesleyan.

Their match on Saturday provided the Panthers one more test before they enter the highly anticipated postseason. Amherst’s 10–6 record this spring was deceiving because the Mammoths had lost their matches to the other six teams ranked in the nation’s top seven besides Middlebury. Their No. 8 ranking spoke to how Amherst stuck with many of the nation’s top teams even though the matches ended up as losses. They lost to No. 1 Emory, No. 2 Williams and No. 3 Claremont-Mudd-Scripps 6–3, and No. 6 Tufts and No. 7 Pomona Pitzer 5–4.

The Mammoths leapt ahead of Middlebury on Saturday by taking two of the three doubles matches. Actually, Middlebury’s pair of Heather Boehm ’20 and Ann Martin Skelly ’21 swarmed Amherst’s No. 3 pair to win the first match of the day 8–2. After Skelly stepped into Christina Puccinelli ’19’s doubles spot in the middle of the season, she and Boehm are a perfect 6–0 in doubles.

“Although losing Puccinelli is definitely hard, Skelly has really stepped up to the task,” Boehm said. “As a first-year she shows no signs of nerves and plays all out. We are definitely now really comfortable with each other’s games and are confident going into the weekend with good results, despite the more recent switch.”

But Amherst’s first two doubles teams outlasted Middlebury’s top two pairs by scores of 8–6 and 8–5 to give the hosts their lead.

The Panthers know they cannot afford to come out flat in the postseason, when it is crucial to be sound up and down the lineup.

“We came out not as strong as would have liked to in doubles,” said Hughes. “This week we are going to focus a lot on our doubles play so we can have a stronger start.”

To win against the Nescac schools and the nation’s best teams, Middlebury must be prepared to pounce on opportunities at any doubles or singles spot.

On Saturday, that happened across the board in singles, where Middlebury took the match over. Maddi Stow ’20 finished first by dominating Avery Wagman 6–2, 6–1 in the sixth slot. Catherine Blazye ’20 followed up her teammate with an equally convincing 6–0, 6–2 win at No. 4, and Skylar Schossberger completed the sweep of the bottom half of the ladder by winning in straight sets, 6–1, 7–6 (7–4).

Ahead 4–2, Boehm clinched the match with her second win of the day in a 6–2, 6–4 victory in the third slot.

These four Panthers have not lost since Middlebury’s last loss, at Williams on Saturday, April 7, combining to go 21–0 in singles since that point to fuel the team’s winning streak.

“We have worked so hard this entire season and are thrilled to see that our efforts are paying off,” said Puccinelli.

Katy Hughes ’20 added one more straight-sets victory, winning 6–2, 6–4 like Boehm, at No. 2 for the Panthers’ fifth singles win on Saturday, before Puccinelli fell at No. 1.

Middlebury is very confident entering Nescacs, and rightfully so, given their play on Saturday and over the last month.

“While we’re still working on individual projects and improving our game on a day-to-day basis, we are all very comfortable with our level of play at this point in the year,” Puccinelli said.

That comfort level has become increasingly apparent over Middlebury’s latest run in Nescac play, which the Panthers attribute to their commitment since last season ended.

“After months of training and perfecting our fitness, we are now just enjoying the level of play that we get to see at practice every day,” said Puccinelli.

Middlebury’s comfort in their play on the court and confidence in themselves emerge in their words. But Hughes is also quick to point out the Panthers must take one match at a time, continuing to practice the way that brought them to this point.

“I believe that all of us are going to work very hard this week on and off the court,” Hughes said. “So we can go into Nescacs feeling confident.”

Middlebury’s confidence is not unfounded: it comes from their success thus far this season, their dedication to improving in practice and in every match, and their trust that a relentless work ethic will pay off.

“Even though we played great tennis this past weekend, we know that our best tennis is still ahead of us,” said Hughes.

Middlebury have a bye through the first round of the Nescac playoffs, which Amherst is hosting this season, and will play the winner of third-seeded Wesleyan and sixth-seeded Bowdoin on Saturday, May 5.

If the bracket holds, the Panthers will play Wesleyan on Saturday, whom they beat 6–3 in the regular season.

“After playing them two weekends ago, this is definitely not a team to lose sight of,” Boehm said. “They are loud and have strong games. We trust our singles but went down in doubles last time so we definitely have been working on that this week.”

If they win on Saturday, the Panthers will play for the conference championship on Sunday, May 6 at 9 a.m.

In the past two seasons, the Panthers lost to Williams in the Nescac championship. In 2016, Williams won 5–0, and in 2017, 5–4. Here’s to another rematch this season.