April 22, 2010

By Alex Prewitt
Special to NCAA.com

Within the Williams College tennis program exists a ritual that extends farther back than any of the current Ephs can remember. It's not the tradition of winning -- the four national championships in the past decade have been talked about enough. No, this is way more important than any one tennis match - this has its origins deep in the basic necessities of human life.

This practice is about eating.

Every night before a match, members of the Williams squad gather together to munch on a few snacks in preparation for the next day's battle. Captain snacks, they call it. But PowerBars and Gatorade have no place wherever the Ephs gather. Sometimes, these snacks are themed. Before a match with Denison, nicknamed the Big Red, senior co-captains Grace Baljon and Ashley Parsons doled out portions of Twizzlers and Big Red gum. Other times, they're just plain junky. Frosted animal crackers, gummi bears and ice cream sundaes are what the two-time defending national champions most often feasts on to get ready. And evidently, it's working.

Last weekend, Williams garnered two of its biggest wins of the year on the road, a 7-2 victory at No. 17 Tufts and then a 6-3 tilt versus the top-ranked school in the country, bitter rival Amherst. Led by Baljon at first singles and sophomore Kristin Alotta at No. 2 singles, the second-ranked team in the latest ITA poll upset the No. 1 squad for the third consecutive meeting between the Lord Jeffs and the Ice Cream Sundaes - er, Ephs.

The perfect combination of camaraderie and skill has been brewing in Williamstown, Mass. for some time now. It's the reason, for instance, why Alotta chose Div. III Williams over playing Ivy League tennis and it's the reason why the Ephs are no poised to vault to first in the next ITA rankings following their weekend sweep of their two NESCAC rivals.

"Really my decision was made by the girls here, I absolutely loved the team," said Alotta, the defending ITA New England Singles Champion. "They had awesome chemistry and I never looked back. It was incredible, I feel lucky to have started to play for a defending champion team, it was a lot of fun and I feel like the team has really developed. None of the girls ever put pressure on themselves or on each other, it's really about having fun and doing the best we can."

Perhaps the Ephs should adopt the Carnival Cruise motto of "All for Fun and Fun for All," given the carefree way they go about business. Case in point: on Sunday, when wind and harsh rains battered Amherst's outdoor court, Williams gathered in its van to prepare for a trip to Mount Holyoke to continue the match indoors. Though the Ephs were up 3-0 at that point, many of the singles players had just dropped a set, creating a feeling of disappointment. But during the 20 minute ride, aided by fist-pumping and head-banging songs like "BedRock" and "Break Your Heart," Williams had an impromptu dance party - while still strapped into their seatbelts, of course.

"We get into the van and there's this air of frustration," Baljon said. "The rivalry, you can feel it. They had so many people cheering and heckling. Then we started driving to Mount Holyoke and listening to music. That's how we went into the match, with a totally revamped energy."

Perhaps Lil' Wayne's chart-topping hit has little to do with tennis or the Amherst-Williams rivalry, but it nonetheless sparked new life in the Ephs. Within 10 seconds of each other after reaching Mount Holyoke, both Bajlon and Alotta finished their respective singles matches to wrap up the 6-3 win, while sophomore Caroline Capute gutted out a three-set victory at No. 6 singles.

"It's the essential core value of our team is that we have fun," coach Alison Swain said. "These girls work hard and set high standards but there's a certain amount of goofiness and fun we have every day. There's no doubt that these girls set very high standards for themselves, but part of handling that pressure is having a goofy side and being able to let go of that pressure and to not take ourselves so seriously all the time."

The score was flip-flopped when the two squads last met on Oct. 3, 2009, a match in which Baljon fell to senior Berckes in three sets. This spring, there were no such dramatics as Baljon took a straight-set victory, 7-5, 7-6(6), evening the career series between the pair up at four apiece. In Baljon's mind, it wasn't about getting revenge so much as it was about earning crucial points for the team, a mindset echoed across the board by the Williams players.

"I knew I had spent a lot of time across the court from that girl but I didn't know the extent of it," Baljon said. "As much as it means to beat her, I got that extra point for the team. Had I not gotten it, the match was so close and they easily could have won 5-4. So it wasn't about evening our rivalry, it was about beating her in order to get that extra point."

Just one point after the No. 1 singles match ended, Alotta completed an impressive three-set comeback against sophomore Laura Danzig, solidifying the fourth win for the Ephs at Amherst in the past five years.

Alotta is no stranger to the big stage, though. The reigning ITA New England singles champion saw her mark of 41 consecutive singles victories end on March 31 against Div. I James Madison, but in the West Islip, N.Y. native's mind, beating the Lord Jeffs outweighs any meaningless streak every day.

"Every match is important, obviously, but overall the goal is to get the team victory," she said. "I try not to think about the streak, because that was something that started to make me a little nervous, but I didn't really start thinking about it until people started writing it in news articles. I wasn't trying to keep the streak up; it was just on the side. Just playing my best comes first."

In her freshman year, Alotta compiled a 29-1 record at No. 4 singles, with the only loss coming to her teammate Cary Gibson, in addition to a 26-6 mark at No. 3 doubles. The bevy of awards from the young Eph extends to a NEWITT Chris Davis Tournament Championship with Genny Loomis and an All-NESCAC Second Team Singles selection. This year, she's hoping to form a new identity and capture a second national championship, all while having fun, of course.

"Hopefully we can get another national championship, but that's really far down the road," Alotta said. "We have to take this season one match at a time. The key is to have a lot of fun in general. If you're not having fun, you're definitely not going to win as much."

Baljon, a double major in Art History and Psychology from Florida, has likewise run up quite the legacy in her three-plus years at Williams. A two-time national champion, Baljon has a career singles mark of 77-15 and boasts two All-American awards on her résumé. But coming from Jacksonville and the junior tennis circuit, the transition from a "me-first" attitude to the intense teamwork necessary to succeed at the Div. III level took some time.

"That decision [to attend Williams] came out of me wanting something entirely different," she said. "The hardest part about it was the weather. I had never seen more than two inches of snow, so playing indoor tennis for the first time in my life was very different. That threw me off, but for the most part coming to Williams was a pretty easy move. It was time for me to take the next step."

Like Alotta, the women on the team made it easy to transition from sunny skies and beach outings to snowy winters and indoor tennis.

"The girls were definitely one of the biggest parts for me," Baljon said "The team sends out e-mails every single day over the summer, so I felt like I had already gotten to know them even since I came to school. It was so easy, I felt like I had made friends since I got there. They're like my family, my best friends and teammates."

The Amherst-Williams rivalry is a threat that extends throughout all sports and is one of the fiercest in all of collegiate athletics. Naturally, women's tennis is no exception. The Lord Jeffs lead the all-time series, 30-23 since 1977 and beat the Ephs, 6-3, in the fall. Remembering the team-first mantra on Saturday helped carry Williams to its first regular season win versus Amherst since Oct. 11, 2008.

Going into our conference matches, all of a sudden we knew that these counted for something," Baljon said. "There was the history or wanting to get revenge on so-and-so. But we're constantly reminding each other that we're working hard together and striving for the same thing. Right before we go into doubles, we talk about how hungry we are. They're really qualified opponents and you can't expect points to be given to you, so we have to have that hungry mentality."

Rather than single out one or two players, though, Swain insisted that the depth of the Ephs and incredible teamwork across the board helped carry Williams to victory against its most storied of foes.

"This wasn't about who was going to be ranked No. 1, it was about the Williams-Amherst rivalry," she said. "It would have been close if we were 10 in the country and they were two. Our rivalry in any sport has a tremendous ability to make the underdog team step up. The girls just brought a tremendous amount of energy."

The always-gritty - and hungry -- Baljon was on full display on Friday when Williams opened up conference play with a 7-2 victory at No. 17 Tufts, which began when Baljon and sophomore Taylor French avenged their loss in the ITA New England Championships to junior tri-captain Julia Browne and senior tri-captain Meghan McCooey, taking home a 8-3 victory, ending the Tufts pair's unbeaten streak versus Div. III opponents this spring.

Versus McCooey at No. 2 singles, additionally, Alotta parlayed a close match tied at one set apiece into a third-set rout, surging ahead for a 6-1 victory to capture the match. This came after she and doubles partner, junior Nikki Reich, lost in a tiebreaker to Tufts freshmen Janice Lam and Lindsay Katz at No. 2 doubles, 9-8(5).

"The excitement won't ever die down," Baljon said. "Taylor and I know each other so well that we barely have to talk in between points, because we just know what each other's going to do. To get to that level of communications with a doubles partner, it's made us more confident, we don't get as nervous and it's easier to play our game. We really inflicted our game on theirs; we beat them that day."

The Ephs are still recovering from their cross-Massachusetts road trip this weekend, but showed no signs of letting up in a 7-2 win over No. 15 Middlebury on Wednesday. As long as they have each other, their captain's snacks and Lil' Wayne in the car, the end is nowhere in sight.

"Being in the van, it makes you tired, but we love tennis and we're going to enjoy it," Baljon said. "At Amherst, we were the underdogs in so many ways on paper because of all the advantages they had being at home. But pressure is a privilege and challenge is a privilege, and the fact that we have a good enough team to play against some of the best in the country is great. I'm playing tennis, I enjoy it, and this is my last few weeks of playing competitive tennis ever. College lets you come full circle in terms of being an individual and playing on the team. It lets you play for Williams, not for yourself."