Women’s tennis finishes epic season

Tim Ruberton

The Lawrence women’s tennis team capped off what was, by all accounts, a special season last weekend at the Midwest Conference team championships in Rockford, Ill., and at the conference singles and doubles championships in Madison. The team finished fourth in Rockford but was third in total points at Madison, crowned by the partnership of Serene Sahar and Susan Klumpner taking the No. 2 doubles title. Even had they not made so strong a showing – Lawrence’s best in nearly 20 years – players said the level of camaraderie made the year a lot of fun no matter what.
Friday’s team championships were not particularly notable in terms of final scores, as the Vikings lost their semifinal match against eventual champion Grinnell 5-1 (in tournament play, meets stop as soon as one side has won the requisite five of nine matches) and dropped the third-place round against Lake Forest 5-0. No. 3 doubles pair Tara Lahtinen and Hanah McCarthy accounted for the only credited win in team play, bumping off Grinnell’s Maya Lipert and Katie Clover in straight sets.
The doubles championships on Saturday and the singles matches on Sunday were altogether more cheerful occasions. The highlight was, of course, the ultimate triumph of Sahar and Klumpner, who accounted for Lawrence’s first women’s tennis title of any variety since 1992 and the first doubles title since 1988, when the No. 1 and No. 2 pairs managed the exact same. Their final match against Brittany Richardson and Jaime Jackson of Lake Forest, though a straight-set, 7-5, 6-3 victory, was capped off in style. On Lawrence’s match point, Lake Forest hit a great shot past Sahar at the net. “Even Serene was turning around to say ‘nice shot,'” said senior Loni Philbrick-Linzmeyer. But Klumpner darted back to make a spectacular return. The Lake Forest pair, surprised to see the ball again so soon, thwacked the overhand return straight into the net, and the Vikings went berserk.
In singles, things didn’t go quite as swimmingly but there were still good performances all around. Freshman Lisa Ritland, at No. 4 singles, played a fantastically close match against Lake Forest’s Anastasia Rudkovskaya in the semifinals, eventually prevailing 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (9-7) before losing 6-3, 6-3 in the finals to Grinnell’s Lipert.
Emma Kent also made it through to the No. 5 semifinals, losing to Margaret Block of, you guessed it, Grinnell. “I felt that I played my toughest tennis ever,” said Kent. “I lost the match, but it was a great thing to end on. No regrets.” McCarthy got to the semis as well in the No. 1 position; Sahar lost in the No. 3 semis to eventual champ Rachel Engh of Grinell, 6-3, 6-3, and Klumpner was consolation champ in No. 2.
Combined with the points earned by strong showings elsewhere, the Vikings’ 49 points in the individual standings were good for third behind powerhouses Lake Forest and Grinnell and ahead of St. Norbert. This improves on an 18-point ninth-place finish last year.
All the success aside, the enduring memories for the players will be of the strong bond formed between teammates and the invariably chipper (sometimes goofy, perhaps) attitude carried throughout the year. Even opponents were charmed. “We were easily the wackiest ones at the tournament, but we were loved for it,” said Maggie Helms. “Two members of the starting lineup at Grinnell loved us so much that they want to schedule a trip to LU in the off season just to visit us.” However, as expected, “[the St. Norbert players] were not at all amused by our riotous fits of laughter, our sing-alongs, or our bright and smiling faces.”
Head Coach Peter Nestel also earns special mention for leading the team from the basement to the penthouse in his first season. “I think we got pretty lucky with coach,” said Kent, a sentiment mirrored by McCarthy, who called her freshman season “one of the most inspiring events in my life thus far.” Philbrick-Linzmeyer, who was around for the bad times, probably sums it up best: “This season has been an amazing start for tennis at Lawrence. This has been the closest team I have ever been a part of and I am honored to have my teammates as my roommates and my best friends. So many things during the season brought us closer to one another, from adjusting to a new coach, [Kobby Buanya’s] death during pre-season, and the host of problems and divisions that usually occur in groups. Out of it all came a group of friends and a lifetime of memories, and I don’t think that many teams can say that about their season.