Worley

There’s something different about Williams, the small liberal arts school nestled in the northwest corner of Massachusetts.

From its unparalleled academic reputation to its athletic nickname — the Ephs — to its purple cow mascot, Williams sets itself apart from other institutions.

On the court, its women’s tennis team has done the same.

The Ephs enter Thursday’s NCAA Division III tournament hoping to add to their record five consecutive national titles. But most importantly, the 10 athletes on the roster are hoping to have a good time.

“As a freshman, I remember thinking there would there be pressure [to win],” senior co-captain Nancy Worley said. “Surprisingly, there was not. I looked up to the older girls who had won a national championship and none of them acted like there was this pressure.

“We’re not doing this for a scholarship. We’re doing this to have fun. Yes, we’d like to win a national championship again, but if we keep that fun playing with each other, that’s what’s important.”

Those are the values instilled in the student-athletes by head coach Alison Swain, herself a national champion as a co-captain for the Ephs in 2001, the program’s first of seven NCAA titles.

Swain was teaching and coaching at the high school level when she took over the women’s program at her alma mater with high goals that have far been surpassed.

In her first five seasons, Swain went 25-0 in the NCAA tournament. She’s 129-17 in six seasons entering Thursday’s NCAA tournament, where Williams will host the first three rounds.

She’s extremely humbled by what her team has been able to accomplish since she assumed the head coaching position.

“I’ll probably be the first to tell you that most of those years, we were not the most talented team in the country,” Swain said. “Of course we were talented enough to put ourselves in the top 10 or so, but it’s not by any means a given [to win national titles]. Once you get to the top 10 teams, it doesn’t come down to talent, it comes down to how you compete.”

Following a high school coaching stint, Williams appeared to be a perfect fit for Swain, who moved from Seattle to the other side of the country. The academic challenges, the school size and competitive athletics made for a perfect blend.

Now Swain seeks good-character kids who want that same fit.

“I definitely think her being from Williams, she gets how much schoolwork we have,” No. 1 singles and doubles player Kara Shoemaker said. “She understands having to balance that with tennis.”

The rigorous academic programs initially helped draw both Worley and Shoemaker to Williams, but what ultimately assured them it was the place to play tennis was the team unity.

Both reflected on the instant connection they felt with teammates. In fact, the tennis team dynamic mirrors the same feel of the whole Williams community. This became evident when Worley sees the same fans rooting for her who she also supports as they perform at an a cappella concert.

The success of the tennis team has proven to be just an added bonus of their time in college.

“The team’s biggest goal is just to be there for each other as friends,” Worley said.

They’ll embark on the journey for their sixth NCAA title this week, but it seems the Ephs already have managed to reach their goal this season.