CARY, N.C. — There are a couple of framed collages just inside the doorway of the Cary Tennis Park clubhouse. In one of them, an 11-year-old Kathleen Elkins is holding up a championship trophy. In the other, she is pictured at the sprawling complex with a teammate.
Elkins is home again, this time to play in the NCAA Division III women’s tennis championship.
Williams is about 800 miles from her hometown of Davidson, N.C., give or take a wrong turn or two. There’s a lot to like about the school, and the whole thing starts with two decidedly non-traditional nicknames. They’re the Ephs, in honor of founder Ephraim Williams, a colonel in the Massachusetts militia who was killed in the French and Indian War. It’s pronounced “eefs” instead of “effs,” because, after all, there is a difference.
The other nickname is even better. The Williams teams are also known as the Purple Cows, after a popular student humor magazine of the early 1900s. Elkins’ grandfather and uncle — Michael and Larry Lazor, respectively — graduated from the institution, and if she was going to travel so far away for college, parents Hugh and Diane Elkins left her not a whole lot of choice in where she would go.
“It was my grandfather who definitely got me on the Williams train,” Elkins said. “I came up for visits, and I loved it. I knew that I wanted to go up North originally. That connection sealed the deal. My parents said that if I was to go that far away, that it would have to be to Williams.”
The 2011 tournament was held in Claremont, Calif., just about as far away from Davidson, N.C. as possible. The only way her family could keep up with what was going on was via a live feed on NCAA.com. This year, her family and family and friends will be able to watch from the grandstands, and for a young woman who has played at the Cary Tennis Park virtually every year from the age of 11 or so, it’s a definite home court advantage.
“I’ve been thinking about this a little bit, talking to my mom about it,” Elkins said. “It’s just kind of surreal being here with my college teammates. A lot of memories are coming back. I’m pretty familiar with the people here, the surface … the accents. My accent’s going to start coming out a little bit.”
Elkins plays No. 4 singles and No. 2 doubles for Williams as a sophomore, with records of 26-4 singles and 14-1 doubles. She was named All-NESCAC First-Team Doubles this year. That’s a stout resume for any player, much less one so far away from home. And as Williams heads into this year’s tournament, Elkins insists she’s not feeling the pressure of performing in front of a partisan home-state crowd.
“The way I see it, it’s just a lot of fun to be able to play in front of my family and friends,” Elkins said, who will spend the fall semester studying abroad in Spain. “Last year, we were in California and that’s a little far from home. It’s even more exciting to have them be here, because they’re all also very familiar with this complex. I’m more excited than nervous.”
According to Alison Swain, the NESCAC coach of the year for the third time in her five years at Williams, that kind of focus and willingness to go outside her comfort zone is a very real part of Elkins’ personality.
“Kathleen’s an adventurous girl,” Swain said. “You have to be adventurous to go to a totally different part of the country for college, and she did. As the person who gets to coach her now, I’m so thankful that her grandfather got her to see our campus in the first place.”
The Ephs are going after their fifth consecutive NCAA DIII team championship, and like Elkins, Swain isn’t about to admit to a case of the nerves.
“These girls put a lot of pressure and expectation on themselves, so I just really try to help them improve and reach their goals,” Swain said.
“We focus on celebrating the things we do well along the way. It’s an exciting opportunity. I don’t look at it as pressure. We’ve achieved so much that, really, just playing in the NCAA championships is an honor and an opportunity. I’ll be proud of these girls no matter what happens this week.”