All that work. All that planning. All that dreaming.
And then…whatever could go wrong for Collegiate’s girls varsity tennis team this past Saturday in the championship match of the VISAA tournament did go wrong.
Or seemed to.
First, there was an hour-and-twenty-minute rain delay which pushed the start of the singles competition at Potomac School to almost 2:30 p.m.
That was problematic, of course, because clocks “fell back” a week before meaning encroaching darkness could be a real issue should the matches extend into early evening, a distinct possibility because both teams were talented and motivated and no match would end quickly.
Then, there was the mid-40’s temperature and wind blowing at about 12 miles per hour, the combination of which created anything-can-happen conditions.
And, hey, did we mention that the Cougars, ranked second in the VISAA, were playing in McLean two hours from home with only family in attendance or that the top seeded Panthers had dealt them a 5-4 loss early in the season?
“Saturday was one of those days where a lot of things were out of our control,” said Coach Allyson Brand. “It is what it is.”
When the teams met in September, Potomac led 4-2 after singles. On this cool, breezy afternoon, the score was 3-3 with three doubles matches left to play.
The catch was that singles ended at 4:15 p.m., sunset would occur in less than an hour, 32. so with no time to spare, the coaches conferred with the USTA referee on site and agreed to abbreviate the doubles competition to one six-game, win-by-two set.
Resilience and resolve, then, became the order of the day.
Potomac won the #2 match. Collegiate (Emma Eldridge/Jordan Gross) won at #3.
As twilight descended, the lights from the nearby athletics building providing just a modicum of light, and the yellow ball often traveling at high speed becoming more difficult to discern, sophomore Elizabeth Mendoza and 8th grader Rita Taylor, the #1 doubles duo, found themselves trailing 4-5.
After fending off three match points, they evened the score.
“Right when we were down and Elizabeth and Rita won that game and it was 5-all, I had a feeling we were going to win,” said Claiborne Dillard, a junior captain who was victorious at #5 singles. “They had momentum. They were going, going, going. Finally, they won, and it was great.”
With the Cougars ahead 6-5, Mendoza’s backhand volley that landed near the baseline between Potomac’s #1 duo of Lauren Foster and Leela Iyer sealed the deal.
Game. Set. Match. State championship. The clock read 5:20 p.m., 25 minutes after sunset. Definitely an experience to remember.
“I was thinking ahead of all the possibilities that could happen,” Mendoza said of that pressure-packed match with the state title on the line. “The weather was a factor, but the other team had the same problem. It was hard to see the ball in the dark. I just tried to keep it in, but I was stressed the whole time.”
So how did she summon the composure to play on, despite the obstacles?
“Just went back to the moment,” she said. “When I started thinking ahead, I had to regroup and think one play at a time.”
And when the final shot sailed true and clinched the 5-4 victory?
“It was a relief,” Mendoza said. “It was like, We did it! I wasn’t stressed anymore.”
The VISAA title was the Cougars’ eighth since they captured their first in 2002. A week earlier, they handily won their 25th League of Independent Schools championship since 1987. Eight times, most recently in 2018, they won both in the same season.
Mendoza, a three-season varsity veteran who played #2 last fall, was both LIS and VISAA most valuable player.
Taylor, Eldridge, Dillard, Gross, and Lucy Ottley earned All-LIS honors by virtue of championship performances in either singles, doubles, or both.
Mendoza (#1 singles), Dillard (#5 singles), and Malone Morchower (#6 singles) and the team of Gross and Eldridge (#3 doubles) and, of course, Mendoza and Taylor won state championships.
Mendoza (of course, again) and Taylor earned first-team All-VISAA honors. Ottley was voted to the second team. Brand was selected VISAA and LIS coach of the year.
The Cougars’ accomplishments are noteworthy considering the fact that five seniors including three of the top four players from last year’s Covid-abbreviated season graduated, but they were hardly left bereft of talent.
Taylor was the only varsity newcomer in the starting lineup. Others had stepped in last year and played exhibition matches as well as occasional scoring matches, experiences which prepared them for this fall’s prime time appearances.
So…rebuilding year, especially with squad laden with underclassmen? Yes, in a way, but not really.
“We lost a lot of strength,” Brand said, “but we definitely had a lot of depth.”
Energy, enthusiasm, and mutual support as well.
“Definitely,” Brand said. “Our team members were always encouraging each other. Everybody has individual strengths and areas of improvement. Going out there and challenging each other and encouraging each other to improve, not just on the court but even in sports performance…that was huge.”
After early September home losses to Potomac and D.C. powerhouse Sidwell Friends (7-2), the Cougars reeled off 14 consecutive victories to finish 19-2. For the year, they were 97-27 in singles and 51-9 in doubles.
They won five of six singles and all three doubles matches in the LIS finals, then defeated Flint Hill 5-1 and St. Catherine’s 6-3 in the first two rounds of states before heading to Potomac.
“Potomac is always tough competition,” Brand said. “They’re fierce competitors. They always seem to rise to the occasion. It’s never easy. We knew we had potential. Coach Mike (Finsterwald, her assistant) and I believed they could do it. They’re fighters. One of the things they have on the team board is ‘Heart, Hustle & Fight.’”
Then, there’re the intangibles.
“Last season, our matches were really focused on the team,” said Ottley, a junior captain. “That helped us this year become really close as a team and stay focused in practice. Since we didn’t have a season last year, we wanted to do the best we could and go far, and that helped us fight for what we wanted.”