Even during such an unusual academic year, navigating the COVID pandemic, this spring was a truly memorable and winning season for Sweet Briar tennis. The historic season ended with the most team wins in the College’s history at 15. This surpassed the previous record of 14 from 2010. Vixens tennis continued their record-breaking season with the most double wins in College history at 49, surpassing the previous record of 44 which was achieved in 2010. And, this year’s team earned the most combined wins in at 137 and earned the second most single wins in College history.
Amongst all of these accolades, the tennis team was the 2020-2021 Old Dominion Athletic Conference Championship runner-up. It was the College’s first time ever in an ODAC tennis championship match in the current tournament format, which began in 2007. In addition, Ruth de Souza ’23 and Allison Wandling ’23 went undefeated in ODAC play in doubles, and were named First Team All-ODAC.
After a successful regular season and conference battle, the Vixens finished 15th in the Atlantic South region. What’s even more exciting, Ruth and Allison earned a nod into the NCAA Division III Women’s Tennis Doubles Championship.
Coach Dustin Hale was beyond proud of the way the team played this year. And, in his eyes, their hard work is what led him to receive the honor of ODAC women’s tennis coach of the year. “The team deserves all of the credit, without them none of it would be possible,” he said. “Truthfully, ten minutes after I found out, I was back on recruiting calls. We have come a really long way as a team this year.”
During a normal, pre-pandemic year, the team would get around five weeks in the fall to prepare for the upcoming season. This year however, the NCAA gave teams 114 days to practice before their spring season. Coach Hale believes this was a helpful change for them because, “I was able to spread it out and practice with them throughout the fall and then bring on Isabela Guilarte Lau ’24 as an addition to the team in January.”
The players also agree, “We had success this season because, as a team, we believed that putting hard work in during the off season would help us win during the season,” says Allison. “We also were very supportive of each other during practices and match days.”
Sweet Briar’s tennis team was also fortunate enough to have some similar dynamics within the roster as the previous year. “Last year’s roster was pretty similar to this year, we kind of felt like last year was stolen from us for a breakthrough year,” says Coach Hale. “But I think we got it back this year. All the athletes coming back had a bad taste in their mouth about having to end early and really wanted to prove that they belong out there with the top teams.”
The growth of the team has continued on a successful trend upwards with great athletes and winning records. When Coach Hale arrived, there were many talented players, but they were all seniors. “Ruth Lechner ’21 came to talk to me and asked if she could play,” says Coach Hale. “I asked her if she had ever played before, and she said no but wanted to give it a try. I needed some athletes on the team since so many were graduating at the time, and so I told her to come on out. She worked incredibly hard for three years to lead the team and ended up finishing her collegiate tennis career as First Team All-ODAC.”
“I came in as a soccer player and about halfway through my first year I went to a tennis class just for fun,” says Ruth. “Next thing I know I am in Coach Hale’s office asking to be on the team with no experience of previously playing.”
Ruth notes the impressive work ethics and closeness of the team. “The team has certainly bonded more,” she says. “They are more dedicated and have higher expectations for each other and for our coach. The team is very open and can talk about anything and everything. We look out for each other.”
The Vixens winning the ODAC semifinals at the University of Lynchburg was definitely one of the highlights of the season. Isabela notes that, “it was a lot of stress watching Allison’s match but as soon as she won, we all ran to give her a big and sweaty hug.” This particular match helped the Vixens make history with their first ODAC championship appearance and, of course, set up the opportunity for Ruth de Souza and Allison to earn a spot to play at nationals.
Ruth and Allison travelled to Chattanooga, Tenn., where they faced their competitors from St. Thomas (Minn.) in the first round. Rainfall forced the match to move to an indoor facility where they finished their nationals run and dropped their two set match. The duo finished the 2021 season 21-2 overall while making the first appearance at the NCAA Division III Women’s Tennis Doubles Championship by a Sweet Briar doubles squad since Traci Allen and Hilary Larson qualified in 1990.
This historic season will not soon be forgotten as the team has not only enjoyed the successful payoff of their hard work, but they are also a team that has used the triumphs and failures of their sport to become a family. The team understands how important it is to have someone cheer you on and encourage you to put your best effort in daily to see results. “Our number one player doesn’t act as if she is more important than the rest of us, and our number seven player feels like she is part of the team and works as hard as the rest of us,” says Ruth Lechner. “We won together, and we lost together. It’s something our coach taught us.”
“The team had the same goal and mindset throughout the whole year. From the first day of practice, we all put in the work to achieve our goals and get to where we knew we could be,” says Ruth de Souza. “We all pushed each other to be the best players and teammates we could be, and I’m incredibly proud of all the hard work everyone put in this year.”
“Pushing and motivating each other has helped tremendously,” says Alexia Alfaro ’22. “Not only did we motivate each other on the court but we did off the court as well. We worked really hard in our practices but what was also important to our coach was our mental health, so we would receive days off to gather our thoughts and relax. Our coach always preached to us about good sportsmanship, supporting one another and self-confidence and as a result, it led us to achieve a successful season.”
Now that the season is complete, there are new goals to set and the next season to focus on. “The ultimate goal, of course, would be to win a national title,” says Coach Hale. “My main goal now is to keep building step by step. I think we will have eight incoming first-years, and I am looking forward to having a big team. We want to be nationally ranked, not just regionally ranked. Finally, I would love for us to win the ODAC championship and get another group into nationals.”
“I give all the credit for the season to the athletes. They did all the hard work, hit all the balls and returned all the serves. They deserve all the credit in the world.”
Here’s to Vixen Tennis! Holla, holla!