Ephs repeat as national champions

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"How can you choose?" Swain asked rhetorically. "Winning (two consecutive) national championships has been among the best experiences of my life.

"It's great to win. When I was a sophomore at Williams in 1999, we lost to Amherst in the finals. Ten years later, we avenged that loss."

Williams rallied from a 1-2 deficit after the doubles and won four straight singles matches in straight sets to beat Amherst 5-2 in the championship on Thursday at the Collins Hill Athletic Club in Lawrenceville, Ga.

"Just the fact that we did it together makes it sweeter," Williams co-captain Annie Hancock said in a phone interview.

It marked the fourth time this decade that the Ephs have won an NCAA tennis title, and Williams is 4-2 in NCAA finals. The Ephs had lost to the Lord Jeffs in the regular season and in the NESCAC championship this year by identical 5-4 scores.

"The legacy of years past is part of everything we do," said Hancock. "We know everyone is watching and paying attention. We knew the trends of years past."

Williams' No. 1 singles player Grace Baljon, who is in her first season as the Ephs' No. 1 singles player, clinched the championship with a 6-4, 6-3 victory over Amherst's Brittany Berckes. Baljon, a junior from Ponte Verde Beach, Fla., lost to Berckes in the NESCAC championship, but gained a measure of revenge with the straight-set victory that clinched the national championship.

But things didn't start off that well for the Ephs, who lost two of the three doubles matches. Baljon and Taylor French scored the only doubles point, beating Amherst's Anuja Ankola and Amelia Bell 8-1. That was what had happened in the 5-4 regular-season loss.

"The only match we lost all spring, we were down in doubles was to Amherst," recalled Swain. "Last year, we were down in the final (to Washington and Lee) 2-1 in doubles. It was a hurdle. It was not where we wanted to be."

Nikki Reich got things started for Williams with a 6-4, 6-3 win over Amherst's Jill Wexler. Reich, a sophomore, had lost to Wexler in the regular season and in the NESCAC championship.

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"Nikki said after the quarterfinals that there was no other option" except to win, recalled Swain.

Moments after Reich won, sophomore Lucy Marchese came off with a 6-4, 6-0 win over Amherst's Laken King. King had been 2-0 against Williams, beating Marchese in straight sets in the NESCAC final.

Williams went ahead to stay when Kristen Alotta completed a sweep of her Amherst foes with a 7-5, 6-4 victory over Natasha Brown. Alotta, a freshman from West Islip, Long Island, beat Brown in the NESCAC final and Thursday in straight sets. The clincher came when Baljon dispatched Berckes in straight sets.

"All the first sets were really close. We seized the opportunity to close out in the first sets," said Swain. "It made us more determined, momentum started to shift our way and we closed out with more determination."

Hancock, who was on the court against Amherst's Amelia Bell when Baljon gave Williams the title, said that being down after the doubles helped focus them on singles.

"We had so much positive energy," she continued. "I knew everyone was fighting their hearts out.

"It was sweet revenge. It was great."

Williams lost in 1994 to the University of California-San Diego and then in 1999 to Amherst. Since then, the Ephs beat Trinity (Texas) in 2001, Emory in 2002, Washington and Lee last year and now Amherst.

And while most of the Ephs are heading back to wrap up classes or graduate, three are still in Lawrenceville. Baljon will compete in the individual singles competition, seeking to be the first Eph to win a singles title. The No. 1 doubles team of Reich and Cary Gibson will also be competing, and they'll try to be the first individual Williams champion since former coach Julie Greenwood and Porter Harris won the doubles title in 1996. Greenwood and Mallory won the NCAA title in 1994. The individual competition begins at 9 this morning.

"The girls are either still on fire or this is a little bit of a letdown," said Swain. "We focus more on the team championship. I just want them to have fun."

To reach Howard Herman: hherman@berkshireeagle.com, (413) 496-6253.


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