The path to the NCAA Tournament was a familiar one for women’s tennis this year. Needing two victories to earn the OVC Championship title and the league’s automatic NCAA bid, the Racers relived two of their best matches from the regular season.
Much like the regular season, these two matches ended in Racer victories, giving the team its first OVC Tournament Championship since 2007.
“This was our goal since day one,” Head Coach Olga Elkin said. “This is what we were waiting for and what we came to do.”
The path to the championship began against UT Martin April 18. The Racers expected a close match after defeating the Skyhawks five days earlier to win the No. 1 seed for the tournament.
The match began with freshmen sisters Eleonore and Verginie Tchakarova falling at No. 1 doubles. Unlike their previous match, the Racers didn’t start off with the lead.
While senior Carla Suga and sophomore Megan Blue were dominating at No. 3 doubles, things looked promising on the courts. The undefeated duo of junior Andrea Eskauriatza and sophomore Erin Patton were up 5-3 before something changed. In a matter of moments, momentum swung to UT Martin and Eskauriatza and Patton lost for the first time all season. The loss put the top-seeded Racers behind 1-0 in the semifinals. Still, Elkiin wasn’t concerned.
“It was a tough match (April 18), and we came out fighting and ready to play,” Elkin said. “We had two really close doubles matches last week, and we knew that UT Martin was a doubles team, so things didn’t go our way.”
With the doubles loss, the journey to the finals required four wins during singles play, but the team did its best to remain confident.
“We knew we were a stronger singles team, and we brought the team together (after doubles) and were ready to return to the court,” Elkin said.
The match then began to repeat itself like it had five days earlier. The Racers dominated singles and found themselves needing one more win to celebrate. The match focused on Patton at No. 6 and Blue at No. 4 who won their first sets. The story then replayed as Patton served with her teammates around her for the match. After a brief rally, Patton was swarmed by her teammates on the adjourning court after her opponent hit the ball into the net.
“There was a little bit of pressure, but it pumped me up to know my team was there and supporting me,” Patton said. “I knew it came down to Megan and I but it was one of those things that if something went wrong with my match that she would have it.”
As the team gathered for its post-match meeting, celebration ensued on the other courts as Eastern Kentucky defeated Morehead State and would face the Racers for the title.
Facing the two-time OVC champions, Elkin said her team wasn’t nervous for the final.
“I don’t think I saw any nerves from the team (April 18), which made me more excited,” Elkin said.
Beginning the match with doubles, the Colonels came out with a vendetta to defeat the Racers, who ended Eastern’s 30-match OVC winning streak earlier this season.
The Racers jumped out to two early 6-1 leads in doubles, but quickly saw them disappear. After losing three straight games, Eskauriatza and Patton settled down for the 8-4 win at No. 2 doubles.
Believing the match came down to No. 3 doubles, most of the crowd moved to No. 3 doubles as the Tchakarova sisters trailed 7-5.
“The twins can do anything, and when things weren’t working, we talked about changing it up. That’s what makes them so special,” Elkin said. “They can change it up on a heartbeat.”
The sisters battled back to tie the match at seven, and used the momentum in the tiebreakers for a 7-2 win in the extra points.
“We knew the team depended on us, and it really was great to have them supporting us,” Verginie said.
Three points away from the championship, the Racers won four first sets to put Eastern Kentucky on edge.
Eskauriatza won in straight sets in her usual style of the season and was forced to watch her teammates play.
“It is more nerve-racking to watch than playing,” Eskauriatza said.
After a win by Eleonore at No. 2 singles against a former two-time OVC Player of the Year, the Racers found themselves one victory away from the championship.
Just like in Richmond, Ky., nearly a month ago, it was Blue serving for the win over the Colonels.
“It was the same emotions just like the last time,” Blue said. “I was at triple match point and I yelled ‘Go Racers’ three times.”
An error by her opponent ended the match and Blue was swarmed by her teammates who were attentively watching her match. This included Suga, who was still playing.
“I was watching Megan the whole time and was cheering her on right next to her,” Suga said. “I knew Nona had won and I thought maybe I would get it but then I saw Megan and knew she would get it done.”
The win by Blue seemed fitting for her season and proved Elkin right.
“I told Megan after she beat Eastern Kentucky that she had another one in her. She did, and pulled it out today,” Elkin said.
Murray State’s victory means the Racers will play in the NCAA Tournament for the fifth time in program history. The Racers’ round one information will be decided during the NCAA selection show on April 29.
Story by Tom Via, Staff writer