After storming back from a 3-0 deficit to bring the match down to the final point, Duke fell short in one of its closest matches of the season.
The third-seeded Blue Devils fell to second-seeded Florida 4-3 Monday in the semifinal round of the NCAA tournament in Athens, Ga. Despite the season-ending loss, head coach Jamie Ashworth had a positive outlook, noting the team’s improvement throughout the season.
“We played [the Gators] six weeks ago and lost [5-0] down at their place,” he said. “Just to see how well we played this week and how much our team grew over the last six weeks and how much better we got was great.”
With the doubles point coming down to the wire to start the match, this competition proved to be a lot closer than the previous meeting. Florida, which features the nation’s top-ranked doubles team consisting of Allie Will and Sofie Oyen, took a quick 8-3 victory over Duke’s No. 21 ranked duo of junior Mary Clayton and freshman Ester Goldfeld.
Duke fought back, however, as sophomore Hanna Mar and senior Monica Gorny won 8-4 to tie up the doubles contest.
With the doubles point on the line, the No. 17 doubles team of freshman Beatrice Capra and sophomore Rachel Kahan found themselves tied 7-7 with the the nation’s No. 22 squad, Gators Lauren Embree and Joanna Mather. The Blue Devils took an 8-7 lead, but were unable to hold on to their advantage, as Florida fought back to take the final two games in a 9-8 (7-1) victory.
“I wouldn’t change anything,” Ashworth said. “Rachel and [Beatrice] have been great for us. I would put them out there in that situation again.”
The rest of the match was a roller coaster ride for the Blue Devils, who after having an edge on all six singles courts, found themselves back on its heels as Goldfeld fell to No. 9 Embree 6-4, 6-0. This was followed by another loss for Duke as Mar fell to No. 21 Mather 2-6, 6-2, 6-0, putting the Blue Devils down 3-0.
With another shutout seeming probable, freshman Monica Turewicz won a 6-1, 4-6, 6-3 victory against Olivia Janowicz to give the Blue Devils their first point.
“We had to get on the board,” Ashworth said. “To get that first match was big and I think people fed off that a little bit.”
The victory’s momentum carried into the next match, featuring the nation’s two best singles players. No. 2 Capra, who was later named ITA National Co-Rookie of the Year, took a convincing 6-4, 6-4 decision over No. 1 Allie Will. The win was an important one not only for the team but also for Capra, who was leading 6-4, 5-4 serving match point in their earlier engagement. Rain, however, led to the match going unfinished.
“[Beatrice] played a smart match,” Ashworth said. “I think that not finishing last time left a sour taste in her mouth. It was a high quality match.”
Rachel Kahan then tied the match up to 3-3 after going into the third set with opponent Sofie Oyen, leaving the match in the hands of Clayton.
After losing her first set to Alexandra Cercone 7-5, Clayton came back with a 6-4 win. Clayton was unable to win the final set, however, falling 6-3 to end the match in the favor of the Gators, who went on to capture the NCAA title over top-seeded UCLA.
“Until the last point of Mary’s match we believed that we were going to win,” Ashworth said. “From a coaching standpoint that is all that I could ask for.”
While his goal of achieving its second NCAA championship was thwarted, Ashworth saw the match as one that has demonstrated significant growth and improvement.
After losing five players from last year’s team, the Blue Devils entered the season with the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class, bringing four new freshmen and four returning players together. With strong individual talent, uncertainty remained as to how the players would perform as a group.
“I knew that tennis-wise we would be good, but I wasn’t sure how great we could be as a team,” Ashworth said. “Everyone got better and everyone did a great job.”
The Blue Devils captured the program’s 17th ACC title this season and won the second-most matches in team history with 29.
Graduating only one senior, Gorny, Duke will return most of its squad that nearly reached the championship.
“We have a strong foundation heading into next year,” Ashworth said. “There is definitely not any chance of us being satisfied with making it to semis.”