Summer Series - Just Another Match
Sweaty palms. Anxiety. Elevated heartbeat. Nervous energy. Any--or all--would be perfectly understandable.
They were about to play for a national championship, after all.
But that was not the case for the Texas A&M women's tennis team which, in late May, was literally in uncharted waters—taking the court for the finals of the NCAA Tournament and only 17-time national champion Stanford standing between the Aggies and the title.
It was, to them, just another match.
"I was very pleased with our team," said second-year coach Howard Joffe, who in very short order has the Aggies positioned among the elite of college tennis. "No one was over-awed by the occasion. Everyone sort of rolled up their sleeves and got stuck in, which was very good considering we were a team that hadn't gone nearly that far. Substantively it was clear to all of us that we had the players, the talent, the experience and so forth, so it was not shocking to any of us (to be in the finals)."
And it's within that attitude where the key to the long-term elite success of the program lies.
It's the attitude that carried the squad from the beginning of the year to a school-record 26 wins, a program-best No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament and corresponding No. 3 final ranking, and only its second appearance ever at the NCAA final site (in tennis the final 16 teams advance to the site).
It was the attitude that carried the Aggies through a brutal schedule, one which included nine top-15 teams before even getting to the NCAA Tournament.
But most importantly, it was an attitude bred of a confidence in ability and confidence in each other. While they didn't vocalize it, this team knew it was capable of competing for a national championship.
"Definitely at the beginning of the year, when just looking at the eight ladies on our roster, it wouldn't be shocking to be in the finals of the NCAA Tournament," Joffe said. "As the season unfolded and we started to get results that lined up with that, it became more and more clear. About two weeks before the tournament, I had the definite sense that each of our kids was playing really well and, like in any sport, the key is to be playing well come the playoffs."
The team had an intriguing mix with a high number of newcomers (four freshmen and one transfer) along with three veteran seniors. Nothing in the middle. It was a mix that Joffe admittedly says could have easily been difficult to manage, but credits his senior leaders—Cristina Sanchez-Quintanar, Wen Sun and Nazari Urbina—for fostering the championship mentality.
"They just did an unbelievable job of staying motivated and invested and those sorts of things. So to Sunny, Cristina and Nazari--just an unbelievable job of not only performing well but facilitating a circumstance where everyone was comfortable and the ship was moving in the right direction.
The class of newcomers was not one that came in and spent most of the season on the sidelines, as will happen in some years. From freshmen Anna Mamalat and Stefania Hristov, to junior transfer Cristina Stancu, to twins Ines and Paula Deheza who were in their first semester in college, they competed early and often—and were in key situations all year and at the end when it mattered. For example, it was Ines as the last court standing in the thrilling semifinal win over UCLA, earning a 6-4 third-set victory to push the Aggies into the championship.
"One of the things that hasn't really sort of sunk in for me yet was what an unbelievable job our four freshmen did. In the final match against Stanford, our four freshmen all participated and did a darn good job—and they did all year really. So that does speak to the trajectory of the team."
Looking to the future, while nothing is guaranteed, Texas A&M is on the path to a continued success at an elite level. And perhaps Aggie fans and the tennis community across the country were caught by surprise when A&M took the court against 16-time national champion Stanford that evening in Urbana, but the team wasn't. And things are lined up to make that a much more common occurrence.
"Hopefully we aren't the proverbial 'one-hit wonder'. The hope is not to just have the one success but to have an enduring team that's always competing for titles. I'm confident we can do that, but there's no doubt there's a lot of work to be done."