May 29, 2010

By Shane Mettlen
Special to NCAA.com

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. - Tufts junior Julia Browne came into the NCAA Division III women's championships believing she had what it took to advance to the finals. Saturday afternoon at the University of Mary Washington she proved it.

Browne lost in a hard-fought quarterfinal match in the singles tournament a year ago to eventual national championship Lorne McManigle of Emory. This year Browne, the tournament's No. 3 seed, cruised in the quarters, taking out Leslie Hansen 6-1, 6-4.

In the day's first semifinal Browne was once again in control from the start. She took care of Amherst's Brittany Berkes in straight sets, winning 6-2, 6-0.

"I was feeling really good today," Browne said. "I played two girls who I play against all season and they are both actually friends of mine. I knew it was going to be tough and I had to work really hard. I had to move a lot and stay really tough and be smart. I was really proud of the way I played today."

Browne will meet Williams senior Grace Balijon in the finals. Balijon is trying to complete a historic run for Williams, which won its third straight team title earlier in the week.

"I really look forward to playing Julia Browne tomorrow," Balijon said. "She's a really nice opponent and we always have fun matches."

Balijon's semifinal match could be classified as a fun one for spectators. After battling injuries coming into the week, Balijon battled for three sets and rallied to beat Jackie Shtemberg from the College of New Jersey.

Balijon, the tournaments' No. 8 seed, dug herself a hole in the fist set, losing 6-1. But she was able to pull even in the second with a 6-2 victory. The third set was back and forth for a while and at one point it appeared Shtemberg had the momentum, but Balijon once again rallied and was able to close out the match with a 6-4 win and secure her spot in the finals.

The Williams senior is making her first appearance in the finals after advancing to the semifinals two years ago.

"We've never had a player do so well two years in her career," Ephs coach Alison Swain said. "It's a huge accomplishment to have not only made the semis as a sophomore, but to be back here as a senior. She played the entire team tournament and really had the heart, determination and skill to make it through to the finals."

Now she's hoping to wrap up her career as a singles player the same way she did in the team tournament.

"No matter what happens tomorrow I'm just sort of speechless," Balijon said. "I didn't think this far and then I got on the court in every match and wanted to stick around a little longer. I just barely pulled my matches out today and the girls I was playing against were playing really well."

Earlier in the day Berckes was able to beat Balijon's Williams teammate Kristin Alotta 7-5, 6-4 to advance to the semis. Browne victory over Hansen set up their matchup in the semis.

"I think it's fun playing against people I know so well," Browne said. "We both have worked really hard and played a bunch of times. It's great that we made it this far because we both push each other and make each other better."

On the top half of the bracket, Balijon moved on to the semifinals after beating Vassar's Nicole Pontee. But Pontee, who knocked out the tournament's No. 1 seed Liz Lewis the day before, didn't' go down without a fight.

Balijon took the first set 7-6 (7-3) before Pontee came back and evened the match in the second with a 6-3 win. But Balijon took control in the third set, winning 6-2 to stay alive.

Shtemberg had an easier time advancing to the semis, taking down Carnegie Mellon's Laura Chen in straight sets, winning 6-4, 6-2.