Back-to-back-to-back champions: UNC women's tennis does it again

Sunday, the North Carolina women's tennis team battled against Duke in the ACC Championship at the Cary Tennis Park. The Heels came out on top, winning 4-2, to claim their third Atlantic Coast Conference Championship title in as many years.

“We kind of just got together (after losing doubles)," said head coach Brian Kalbas, "and I told them — I was kind of just chuckling a little — ‘We could be the first team ever to win the ACC Championship without winning doubles.'"

The team dropped the doubles point three days in a row. All three matches Carolina played during the tournament were won solely on singles points. 

"I love this team,” Kalbas. “To see us battle back from losing the doubles point in every match this weekend — they have such an incredible work ethic and an attitude about themselves." 

Carolina now has nine ACC titles overall, second-most in the conference. Plus, two days in a row, Saturday and Sunday, Carolina won over Georgia Tech in the semifinals and then over top-seeded Duke in the finals. Two teams in a row that had each beaten the Heels during the regular season.

It was also the first time Kalbas has beaten Duke in an ACC postseason — which Kalbas said made this win even sweeter.

The victory also marked Kalbas’ 600th win as a head coach, and No. 7 Makenna Jones wanted to make sure he didn’t downplay his accomplishment.

“He’s unbelievable,” Jones said after the match. “More people should appreciate how incredible of a guy he is and what an awesome coach and so many things, I can’t even explain. He deserves this. 100 percent. He’ll always say that he has nothing to do with it, but he’s lying because he does. He’s unbelievable.”

The Heels, despite dropping doubles, quickly shifted the momentum in their favor when singles play began. When Jones, the sophomore holding steady in the the No. 1 singles spot, battled against her opponent No. 6 Samantha Harris just over a week before during the regular season, the match was taken to a third set tie-breaker that Jones eventually edged ahead and won 7-4. Sunday was different, though. Harris was injured and had retired from her match play on Saturday, but she was back out on Sunday, despite the wrist injury, to face Jones. 

It was a quick match though, at No. 1, and Jones slapped the Heels even on the match at 1-1, with the Blue Devils. Jones is now 11-0 at No. 1 singles, and she remains unbeaten in ACC play with a 15-0 win streak.

“It’s very surreal,” Jones said. “I just don’t even know how to explain it, honestly, but it’s amazing.”

Jones was also named MVP of the tournament for her play throughout the weekend.

“I’m sure (Harris) wasn’t overly healthy since she retired yesterday, but you’ve got to give Makenna credit to stay focused and just not give her any opportunities was amazing,” Kalbas said. “She definitely deserves the MVP of this tournament.” 

With the score of the match evened, Carolina was still swinging hard on all five courts. No. 96 Jesse Aney on Court No. 5 was the next match to finish, and although she was overtaken quickly in her first set, the junior battled back for a set point in the second and forced an extra game. Ultimately, Aney lost 6-2, 7-6, but Kalbas still praised her for her resiliency.

On Court No. 6, Chloe Ouellet-Pizer did what she’s always done: played steady. Ouellet-Pizer is nothing if not consistent for the Heels. The junior had an up-and-down string of three sets on Sunday, which she eventually won 6-4, 1-6, 6-2, to pull the Tar Heels back to even with the Blue Devils. She’s made a name for herself for her determination and her determination, and her unyielding work ethic and drive ultimately pushed her to win in dominant fashion in the third set.

Then there’s No. 27 Alle Sanford. She lost on Saturday after being up 3-1 in the third set, but Kalbas found positives in the loss.

“Alle, you were playing the best tennis that I’ve seen you play since indoors and definitely since the fall," Kalbas told her. "You are back. You’re back. Okay? Forget about lost opportunities and losing that match. You’re going to come through tomorrow because you’re game’s back, your attitude’s back, and your killer instinct is back."

The talk between coach and player must have worked, as Sunday, Sanford playing the No. 2 singles spot didn’t budge against her opponent, battling every point.

"For her to come through for our team in this big setting is awesome for her and for the rest of the season," Kalbas said. "Because obviously we still have a lot more tennis to play, so it’s nice to be able to have her gaining her rhythm and her confidence at the right time.”

The freshman Sanford was the piece that set the puzzle up to finish beautifully. Winning her matches 7-6, 7-5, Sanford put Carolina up for the first time all day. The Heels were then leading 3-2 for the match.

 Sara Daavettila battled for nearly four hours on Sunday to give the Heels the win | Photo courtesy Jeffrey A. Camarati/UNC Athletic Communications

Sara Daavettila battled for nearly four hours on Sunday to give the Heels the win | Photo courtesy Jeffrey A. Camarati/UNC Athletic Communications

It was No. 92 Alexa Graham on Court No. 4 and No. 41 Sara Daavettila on Court No. 3 who sealed the deal for Carolina on Sunday. Ultimately, Graham’s match would remain unfinished, but her efforts were crucial for the Heels to keep momentum from swinging the wrong direction for UNC.

Graham and Daavettila were still battling as the match neared the four-hour mark. In the heat of a Southern spring in Cary, that’s not an easy accomplishment. The two Heels were separated onto two different levels of the courts, but even without direct lines of sight to one another, they were fighting for each other, fighting for their teammates, fighting for their coaches and everyone there supporting them.

Graham was going into a third-set tiebreaker while Daavettila was knotted 5-5 in her own third set. Graham had gone up 6-4 in her tiebreak, but her opponent, No. 28 Kelly Chen of Duke, wasn’t sitting back and evened it up at 6-all.

It happened then. 

Just as Chen was about to serve for the next point on Court No. 4, Daavettila watched as her opponent No. 105 Kaitlyn McCarthy double faulted to end their match 7-5 in favor of Daavettila and end the title match 4-2 in favor of the Tar Heels. 

That’s when celebrations began. Hats and trophies were handed out, Jones was named the tournament’s MVP, Kalbas was covered with ice water during an interview and the Heels stopped to take in their accomplishments before they take the week to recover and get ready for NCAAs. 

“I knew, no matter what, I love this team,” Jones said. “So win or lose, we were going to be okay, but I knew we were so close. It was right on the tip of our tongues. It was amazing.”

@ohenley5

Photo courtesy UNC Athletic Communications (Jeffrey A. Camarati)