CARY, N.C. – Five consecutive championships in any sport are hard to comprehend, much less put into perspective.
There are hall-of-fame, legendary players in any number of sports who have never one title, much less five. To string together five in a row is a remarkable accomplishment, especially at the college level, where constant turnover is as sure as tomorrow’s sunrise. With just four years of eligibility to play with, wet-behind-the-ears freshmen replace experienced seniors each season.
Never before had a NCAA Division III women’s tennis team managed more than four straight championships coming into this year’s tournament. Williams College had won the last four, a feat matched only by Emory University in 2003-2006. The Ephs of Williams proceeded to roar past the University of Chicago 5-2 to clinch No. 5.
Like any successful coach, Swain wasn’t about to take any of the credit for herself. She wasn’t on the court … her players were. What’s her secret?
“I don’t know that I have any,” Swain said with a laugh. “It really does come down to the intangibles, once you have that level of talent. Our team culture, our work ethic, the close-knit group we have and the way we are able to compete under pressure are really things that make the difference for us.”
If players coming and going is Issue No. 1 for a successful coach to deal with, then complacency would have to be right behind. Win as often as Williams has, and a lot of players at other schools would come to expect it. So would parents and the rest of the student body. Because of that, managing expectations becomes as crucial to a coach like Swain as any on-the-court training.
Williams won its first women’s team title in 2001, when Swain was a senior there. They won again the following year, and then not until Swain showed back up on campus. Championships are not automatic, and that’s what she gets across to her players each and every year.
“We have an incredible alumni base, and those alumni have had years of not winning national championships,” Swain said. “They reach out to me and the girls at this time of the year, and I, frankly, use them as a resource to help remind our team how special this experience is. The NCAA [championship] really is a celebration. It’s an honor, and whatever we do here, as long as we’re great sports and as long as we compete to the best of our ability, I’m proud of them.
“When I get back to Williamstown, people will say to me, ‘What do you do from here?’ This is what I get every year. My first year, our head football coach told me I should retire. My response is always, ‘This year was an amazing year. I’m so proud of the girls. One year we won’t win it, and that’s going to be just fine. That’s going to be great.”
Suuuuuuuuuure, it will. Swain laughs.
“We’ll take it,” she continued. “We’ll keep working for it. We’re going to do our best every year, and certainly, I think we’re going to have groups that can win national championships in the future. We’ve accomplished so much. Winning one is a dream. We’ve won five. That’s beyond what anyone can dream of. It’s beyond what I ever dreamed of when I took the job at Williams.”
None of her current players were around for Swain’s first championship as a coach, all the way back in 2008, Swain’s first season at the helm. 2012 seniors Kristin Alotta, Caroline Capute and Taylor French were the first class that she recruited, and the four of them have been through a lot together.
“As I’ve become familiar with many different college coaches, Alison really stands out,” said Caputo, a religion major who will graduate June 3. “She cares more than any other coach I’ve ever been privileged to know or work with. She shows it every single day. Also, I think what’s important about Alison is that she works extremely hard during the season and during offseason. Every year, she finds different ways to improve our program.”
Think about it. Capute has won a national championship every single season of her collegiate career. That’s astounding, unbelievable, really. How does she manage her own expectations and not take this whole thing for granted?
“Something funny I was thinking about winning five in a row at the beginning of the spring, five in a row is absurd. How is that possibly going to happen?” Capute said. “But then I started thinking about it, and four in a row is absurd. How did that happen? Three in a row is absurd. Once I realized the logic, I stepped back and thought why not? There’s no reason it can’t happen again this year.”
It could happen again, and it did.