Women's Tennis takes resilient path to Big 12 title
April 30, 2012
Natalie England, TexasSports.com
The rallying cry of the Longhorns has a simplistic yet worldwide appeal. Chants of “Texas Fight” can overtake sold-out arenas and small town parking lots alike.
But on this Sunday afternoon in College Station, on the maroon-and-gray tennis courts of Texas A&M, the Texas Women’s Tennis team opted to show its fight, not simply yell it.
Not even two weeks prior, head coach Patty Fendick-McCain and the Longhorns took on the Aggies in a match that would have guaranteed UT of at least a share of the Big 12 regular season title. What ensued though was full of eerie emotion. The Longhorns looked lethal at times, lethargic at other times, and ultimately the Aggies prevailed with a 4-3 victory.
That defeat, and a road loss at Oklahoma State on April 22, were what the Longhorns referred to as “bumps in the road” or “ rough stretches” as they celebrated their Big 12 Championship title this past Sunday, after dismantling the host Aggies 4-2 in the tournament final.
It marks UT’s eighth Big 12 title, and the first under Fendick-McCain, who has led her Longhorns to the finals of the Big 12 Championship in each of her seven seasons at UT.
“It’s special for us,” Fendick-McCain said. “We haven’t won this before, and one of our goals this season was to come and win this tournament. After the bumps in the road, it almost seemed unlikely. It’s a true tribute to the team’s resiliency, their determination and their Texas fighting spirit.”
Despite finishing in a second-place tie at the conclusion of the Big 12 regular season, the Longhorns fell to a No. 4 seed for the league tournament. UT made quick work of OSU in the quarterfinals, then met top-seeded Texas Tech in the semifinals.
Four singles victories from Lina Padegimaite, Aeriel Ellis, Elizabeth Begley and Krista Damico allowed the Longhorns to claim a 4-1 victory against Tech despite dropping the all-important doubles point.
Against the Aggies on April 17, the Longhorns also lost the doubles point, and that proved decisive in A&M’s 4-3 win. As Fendick-McCain looked ahead to the championship final at the conclusion of the Tech match, she said simply, “We have to play better in doubles.”
So on a muggy and windy Sunday afternoon, the Longhorns responded to their coach’s call.
The No. 2 doubles tandem of Damico and Ciera Gaytan-Leach raced out to a 5-0 lead to ultimately squash the 16-match winning streak of A&M’s Janelle Cuthbertson and Nazari Urbina, while Padegimaite and Noel Scott used two service breaks to earn the 8-4 win at No. 1 doubles.
The Longhorns clinched the championship match because of singles victories by their Nos. 4, 5 and 6 players. Begley, who was named the tournament’s most outstanding performer, and Padegimaite were characteristically dominant, dropping a combined three games in four sets.
Gaytan-Leach’s three-set triumph proved to be the clincher, but Damico’s heroic athleticism at the No. 2 position certainly pushed her sophomore teammate. Neither Damico nor A&M’s Urbina held serve in the opening set’s first eight games, before the UT senior finally did to close the first set, 6-4.
“I knew the longer I stayed out there and kept fighting that hopefully I could just push her (Cierra) through it,” Damico said. “I knew she had it in her. When I heard she had won, I knew I had to shake my opponent’s hand, but all I wanted to do was just run to Cierra and go hug her. She’s only a sophomore, and she did so well. It’s a lot of pressure for her. It’s just amazing.”
With Damico locked in a second-set battle, Gaytan-Leach used a service ace to close out her match – and the championship – with a gutsy 3-6, 6-4, 6-2 victory.
“Determination is great, but you’ve got to have some strategy. I think at the beginning, she had a pretty good strategy, and then it got away from her a little bit because she was trying so hard,” Fendick-McCain said of Gaytan-Leach. “I went out there after the first set and just settled her down a little bit and reminded her of the game she needed to play. Her determination was going to help her do that, but she had to be able to focus on her strategy, settle herself down and do what she had done so well all season. She kept her discipline and kept her emotions in check.”
This marked the second occasion this season that UT’s fortunes have rested on Gaytan-Leach’s racquet. Her 7-5, 5-7, 6-4 singles win was the clincher during the Longhorns’ 4-2 regular season victory against Tech on April 15.
Though the stakes were slightly higher against the Aggies, Gaytan-Leach was true in the moment, and proved to be the very definition of “Texas Fight.”
“It felt amazing. I couldn’t be happier,” Gaytan-Leach said. “I felt amazing out there in the last two sets, and that was the way I wanted to end it, with an ace.”