ERIE, Pa. - For the first time in program history, the Franciscan University women's tennis team is back-to-back AMCC champions, after they defeated Penn St.-Altoona in the finals of Sunday postseason play.
The women began their run toward their third program title in four years with a solid doubles showing at Erie's Westwood Racquet Club, just after team lineups concluded at 12:15 pm. At No. 3 doubles, Altoona held serve to accrue a 1-0 lead. Unfazed, senior captain Emmy Mathias and sophomore Gracie Hammel responded with eight straight games of their own, in competition characterized largely by a willingness to finish points inside the service line. In a twist, Franciscan's No. 3 doubles Altoona counterparts both elected to remain at the baseline, allowing both Hammel and Mathias ample opportunities to volley short balls into alternating corners. The match never necessitated a change of strategy from aggressive, smart tennis.
Watching the conclusion of the No. 3 doubles match was Franciscan's No. 1 doubles duo, captain Maria Binette, and sophomore Madelyn Conrad, who made quick 8-0 work of their competition on the first court. Binette's decisive serving in the opening game paved the way for a fast 3-0 lead, at which point the Lady Barons only amplified the aggression. After the match's second changeover, both Binette and Conrad approached the net at regular intervals, creating opportunities to angle decisive volleys well off the court. Franciscan also forced Altoona to serve to the forehand side, opening up Binette's solid inside-out forehand service return opportunities down the stretch.
With junior Julia Razook serving at the No. 2 doubles spot, Franciscan took the opening game on the second court with four straight points. Bolstered by her partner Taranee Karimpour's ever-consistent groundstrokes, the pair exploited open doubles alleys all match long. Karimpour launched one such winner for a 2-1 Lady Barons lead, and after a changeover at 3-2, Franciscan blew the match wide open, with a timely service hold for 5-2. Karimpour's baseline consistency gifted them the 6-2 lead, at which point Razook ensured a close game would go Franciscan's way, with three straight points of solid baseline doubles. Now rolling a 7-2, Razook sent an overhead winner into an empty corner for the 8-2 match win.
Closing in on another AMCC title after a 3-0 doubles lead, the Lady Barons regrouped for the onset of singles play. It would be the same two women who closed Saturday's semifinals match that would step up and deliver points four and five for Franciscan.
First to finish was Hammel at No. 3 singles, who found more luck at the baseline than at the net during her opening games. She elected to remain behind the service line, instead of punishing her opponent's attempts to reach the net with backhands at peak consistency; momentum carried her without complications through a 6-0 first set. She maintained textbook consistency throughout the course of the second set, establishing early in-game leads and attacking her opponent's vulnerable backhand. Hammel registered the fourth point of the match for the Lady Barons courtesy of a 6-0 second set, leaving the team only a single point from victory.
That point came only seconds later, as Binette wrapped up a 6-2, 6-0 victory on court two, who after allowing her No. 2 singles opponent to hold serve, promptly won six of the ensuing games for the opening set. She continued to include a heavy dose of slice into a game plan originally established in Saturday's semifinals match, following nearly every stroke into the net during the eventual win. The junior kept her opponent perpetually off balance, allowing a combination of depth and consistency to serve up a conference-clinching victory.
At the time all courts were ordered to stop play, Conrad was herself only two points from victory at the No. 1 singles spot. The sophomore had effectively rid herself of any residual rust from her semifinals singles performance and was looking the part of a true No. 1 player on court one. Elsewhere, Karimpour was only games from a victory at No. 5 singles.
The match marked the final conference opponent which seniors Emmy Mathias and Marisa Pinto will ever face and the first women's title under the leadership of head coach Scott Greve. The Lady Barons' postseason run is effectively halted until NCAA competition in May; as of now, they have earned well-deserved time off.