Whitman tennis competes nationally

Pamela London

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From the outdoor courts and Bratton Tennis Center at Whitman College to the world’s largest indoor tennis facility–the change was drastic, to say the least.

For weeks Whitman tennis players Conor Holton-Burke, Andrew La Cava, Elise Otto and Alyssa Roberg trained every day on the practice courts next to Ankeny Field in preparation for their fall season. Last week, all those hours of work paid off when they traveled to Mobile, Ala. for the USTA/ITA National Small College Championships.

The Copeland Cox Mobile Tennis Center in Alabama is home to 60 tennis courts all enclosed in a single structure, making it the largest public tennis facility in the world. Participating in the tournament were teams from Division III universities from all across the nation.

“It was crazy,” said La Cava, a first-year playing in his first national collegiate tournament with his doubles partner junior Holton-Burke and accompanied by their coach Jeff Northam.

“We got a glimpse of the best players in the country,” added Holton-Burke.

In order to get the chance to compete in Alabama, the players had to qualify for the National Small College Championships by winning their respective regional tournaments: Otto and Roberg won the women’s ITA regional tournament held at Whitman at the end of September, and Holton-Burke and La Cava qualified by winning the men’s ITA regional tournament in Salem, Ore. These tournaments featured all of the Northwest Conference teams that Whitman faces during their regular spring season. La Cava also won the singles bracket in Salem, qualifying him for the singles portion of the National Small College Championships.

“[The] level of tennis is pretty awesome,” said Otto. “Personally I love being challenged in tennis. For me to get a look at really good teams like last year’s national champions [Chrissy Hu and Kendra Higgins of the University of Chicago]–this is what I play tennis for.”

Once the teams had qualified for Nationals, their focus turned to winning matches against some of the top teams in the nation. Otto and Roberg, after an intense 6-3, 4-6, 10-8 victory to get into the tournament’s main draw, found themselves looking at several guaranteed matches over the following two days.

“I felt like Alyssa and I deserved to be [in that main draw],” said Otto. “Once we won the playoff, my goals were more process-oriented. I want[ed] us to be able to focus and play with any team in the nation, and we spent a lot of time talking about what that would look like and what we need[ed] to work on.”

Holton-Burke and La Cava took a slightly different approach to their expectations and goals for the tournament. La Cava was hit with the flu leading up to Nationals, leaving the doubles team unable to practice for over a week.

“Right now, it’s really difficult to put the whole tournament in perspective,” said Holton-Burke. “My expectations were running pretty low going into the tournament because my partner had been really sick . . . and we hadn’t really had the opportunity to prepare together. I was really afraid we were going to get crushed.”

Despite the setbacks leading into the tournament, Holton-Burke and La Cava found themselves with match points in two sets against No. 1 seed Bobby Cocanougher and Cory Kowal of Trinity University (Texas) before losing 6-7 (7-2), 7-6 (10-8), 10-6.

“While it was a heartbreaking loss, I’m definitely proud of the way we played,” said Holton-Burke.

“Conor and I played very well together and I was happy with how we competed,” added La Cava. “We came extremely close to taking down the number one team in the country.

For all four players, the overall experience was something they won’t soon forget.

“I think this tournament was a great experience for Alyssa and me,” said Otto. “We got to try strategies we have been working on against national-level teams that all played with distinctive styles.”

Even though the fall portion of their play ends with this tournament, these experiences will carry through to their main season beginning at the end of January.

“Playing in the tournament was meaningful because it was an opportunity to see how we measure up against the best teams in the nation,” said Holton-Burke.

“It [was] awesome to have the opportunity to compete at such a high level,” said La Cava. “This opportunity is part of the reason why I came to Whitman.”