“To be perfectly honest, given the talent on both teams, I think the match could have gone either way,” said Christina Puccinelli ’19 after the women’s tennis team’s 5–4 loss to Williams back on April 7. “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.”
On Sunday, May 6, the two teams met again, this time in the Nescac championship at the Bay Road Tennis Club in Amherst, Massachusetts. Once again top-seeded Williams (18–0) prevailed, this time by a score of 5–3, to win its third consecutive conference crown over second-seeded Middlebury (14–3).
But Puccinelli’s words rang true once again on Sunday. Despite losing the match and being swept in doubles, the Panthers outscored Williams because all their singles wins came in straight sets, while their losses all went down to the wire, requiring the full three sets to finish.
Trailing the Ephs 3–0 after doubles, the Panthers mounted a comeback, winning the first two singles matches to pull within one. All at once, Middlebury had fought its way back into the contest. Christina Puccinelli ’19 and Maddi Stow ’18 bounced back from first-set losses to win their second sets, and Catherine Blazye ’20 won her first set in dominant fashion, 6–1.
For the second time this season, the match between the conference’s best could have gone either way, but Williams outlasted Middlebury to win its sixth championship in the past eight years, riding its doubles’ dominance to victory even after the Panthers’ surge in singles play.
Going into the playoffs, the Panthers knew they had some work to do in doubles after losing two out of three against Amherst in the last match of the regular season.
“We did not come out as strong as we would have liked in doubles, so this week we are going to focus a lot on our doubles play,” said Katy Hughes ’20 after the Amherst match. “We want to — we must — have a stronger start.”
In their semifinal match against Wesleyan on Saturday, the Panthers came out stronger than they did against Amherst, winning two of three doubles matches — the only loss came to the reigning NCAA doubles champions, Eudice Chong and Victoria Yu, in the first slot.
In fact, just like in Middlebury’s first match against Wesleyan, Chong and Yu were the only Cardinals to score victories on Saturday, as the Panthers controlled the rest of the ladder to win 5–3 and earn a spot in the conference championship match the next day.
Stow and Catherine Blazye ’20 won 8–2 in second doubles, while Heather Boehm ’20 and Ann Martin Skelly ’21 remained undefeated as a pairing by defeating their opponents 8–6. Blazye, Boehm and Stow all won in straight sets to set up Middlebury’s match with Williams, who shut out Tufts 5–0 in the other semifinal to move into the championship.
Middlebury could not replicate Saturday’s doubles success against Williams on Sunday. The Ephs leapt out to what seemed to be a commanding 3–0 lead for the winners of 30 consecutive matches overall, a streak dating back more than a year to April 8, 2017, when Middlebury beat Williams 6–3.
But then the Panthers made a move of their own. Hughes made a statement by dominating Leah Bush 6–2, 6–0 in second singles. Then Boehm, after trailing 5–2 in the first set of her match with Chloe Henderson in the third slot, rattled off 11 straight games to win in straight sets as well. Both Hughes and Boehm pushed their doubles struggles out of their minds to bring Middlebury back within one match of Williams.
“It is really hard to lose all 3 doubles to a team as good as Williams,” said head coach Rachel Kahan. “But after the doubles points, regardless of who we are playing and what happened in the doubles, our mindset is that the match resets. We look to go out and win all six singles matches.”
Meanwhile, Puccinelli lost her first set 6–1 to Juli Raventos in first singles, as did Stow, 7–6, to Korina Neveux in the sixth slot. But both of them bounced back too, as Stow wasted no time winning her second set 6–1, and Puccinelli came back in her second set to win in a tiebreaker 7–6 (7–5).
Williams regained some hold of the match when Neveux beat Stow in the third set to put Williams one win away from the conference championship. But Blazye countered in fourth singles, winning 6–1, 6–1 over Mia Gancayco to keep Middlebury alive.
Raventos won Sunday’s decisive match, outlasting Puccinelli in a three-set victory, 6–1, 6–7 (5–7), to secure Williams’ third-straight Nescac crown. At that point, Skylar Schossberger ’20 led Julia Cancio 3–0 in the first set of their match, but they stopped when Williams clinched the match.
Since Williams last lost in that match to the Panthers over 13 months ago, the Ephs have won one national title and two conference championships, and will enter this month’s NCAAs 18–0.
But Middlebury inched a little bit closer on Sunday. The Panthers dominated three singles matches, led in a fourth, and lost in three sets in the other two.
“The team fought extremely hard, and I felt the belief that we could win through the whole match,” said Kahan. “Every match with Williams has been close and has come down to a couple of points.”
More than anything else, Sunday’s match demonstrated the fickle nature of sports.
“Once again, the results could have gone either way, and once again we drew the short end of the stick,” Puccinelli said.
She and the rest of the Panthers remain firmly convinced that they can beat Williams and any other of the top teams in the country. Simply viewing Sunday’s match as a loss is a waste of time because of how well Middlebury played.
“My team competed with energy, composer and grit, and I could not be more proud,” said Puccinelli. “We came out with energy and determination, and we did not waver in either throughout the full five-hour battle.”
Not only did the Panthers play extremely good tennis, they did so in the face of adversity after falling into a daunting 3–0 hole.
Middlebury’s full body of work this season is much more representative than one loss. And because of their hugely successful spring, the Panthers will host one of the NCAA Regional brackets, starting today and running to Saturday, May 12. The Panthers have a bye through the first round of the seven-team draw and will play their first match tomorrow. No. 18 Skidmore is the only other ranked team in the regional.
If the Panthers win on Friday and Saturday, they will advance to the quarterfinals which will be held in Claremont, California. The Panthers are one of five Nescac teams in the NCAA tournament, along with Williams, Wesleyan, Amherst and Tufts. And Middlebury and Williams are on opposite sides of the bracket, meaning a rematch between the two squads would not come until the national championship.
Middlebury has demonstrated throughout the season it is one of the nation’s top teams, having defeated No. 5 Wesleyan (twice), No. 6 Tufts, No. 7 Pomona-Pitzer and No. 8 Amherst, while giving No. 2 Williams two of the biggest challenges the Ephs faced all spring. And it’s become increasingly clear how little separates Middlebury from Williams, and the other two teams ranked ahead of them, No. 3 Claremont-Mudd-Scripps and No. 1 Emory. CMS beat Middlebury 7–2 on March 30, but that feels like the distant past, given how well the Panthers played in the Nescac.
“I believe that the results in the final rounds will simply come down to who wants it more,” Puccinelli said.
Sunday’s loss stoked the Panthers’ fire even more.
“Each opponent we face from here on out will be determined and resilient, since a loss means the end of a season,” said Puccinelli. “We love the challenge and want the title more than we ever have.”
In 2003, Middlebury qualified for its first NCAA tournament. Two seasons later, the Panthers reached the semifinals of the tournament, but then did not return to that point for another 11 seasons, when they were one of the final four teams in 2016. Last season, Middlebury reached the semifinals again, where Williams beat the Panthers. The Ephs have now beaten the Panthers in four consecutive matches, while CMS has defeated Middlebury six straight times and Emory has knocked them out of the tournament three times since 2013.
To put it lightly, the Panthers want to beat these teams ranked above them. And they have shown they can compete with them. Is now the time for the Panthers to finally conquer the perennially dominant DIII teams?