One team was looking for the Southern Conference tournament championship for the first time since 2007, while the other was making its first ever appearance in the tournament finals.
The Elon University men’s and women’s tennis teams hoped to make two different versions of history April 21 at the Jimmy Powell Tennis Center. Both sides ended on the wrong side of history, but in eerily similar fashions.
The only men’s SoCon title came in the 2007 season when the Phoenix swept the regular season and the tournament titles with an overall 23-3 record with a perfect 9-0 mark in conference.
In 2013, head coach Michael Leonard’s Phoenix started conference action 7-0 before dropping consecutive matches late in the season — April 7 — to Georgia Southern University and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Entering the SoCon tournament as the No. 1 seed having won the regular season title, Elon was looking to make history in sweeping the titles for a second time in six years. They breezed through the quarterfinals and the semifinals on the way to a meeting with the second-seeded Samford University Bulldogs Sunday.
"We have had a great year as a team,” said sophomore Stefan Fortmann. “The step we have taken from last year to this year is a very big one.”
On the other side, the Elon women finished one match short of holding a share of the regular season conference title. The Phoenix finished 8-2 while College of Charleston came in with a 9-1 record to take the No. 1 seed.
Flying high coming into the tournament having already broken the school record for most wins in a single season, the Phoenix, like its male counterpart, breezed through the quarterfinals and semifinals of the tournament on the way to matching up with the No. 1 seed College of Charleston with the tournament title on the line.
“We were sixth-seeded last year,” said women’s head coach Elizabeth Anderson. “Having the chance to win the entire thing this year, it speaks to our character.”
Following Saturday’s semifinal matches, both coaches termed the opening doubles point as the most crucial to being victorious Sunday. The men converted with No. 1 and 2 doubles, winning in back to back minutes to secure the early 1-0 advantage. That wasn’t the case for the women.
Charleston junior Kelly Kambourelis and sophomore Jenny Falcone made quick work of Elon junior Viviana Stavreva and sophomore Maria Camara Ruiz at No. 2 doubles, 8-4. As the Elon’s lone senior Briana Berne and freshman Taylor Casey were battling on court three, juniors Jordan Johnston and Frida Jansaker won the tiebreaker at No. 1 doubles to put the pressure on Berne and Casey.
The Cougars duo of senior Christin Newman and sophomore Samantha Newman got a timely break of the Elon pair to take the match 8-6 and the doubles point for Charleston.
As both matches progressed to the singles portions, the men traded points with the Bulldogs when Fortmann, hobbled by a knee injury he aggravated the day before in the semifinals against the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, dropped No. 2 singles to junior Elliot Barnwell. Minutes later, sophomore Jordan Kaufman finished off senior Alex Sajonz at No. 4 singles, 6-3, 6-3.
“We played good doubles,” Leonard said. “We just didn’t come out in the beginning of singles like I thought we would.”
Samford took the next two matches at No. 3 and 5 singles to pull out to a 3-2 lead overall and into a position that seemed almost insurmountable given the remaining scores. Junior Cameron Silverman was trailing after dropping the first set at No. 1 singles while sophomore Juan Madrid was trailing at the No. 6 spot having dropped his first set as well.
Though Madrid contested the first set, junior Garrison Laduca won it, but he was only able to win three more games, dropping the match 5-7, 6-2, 6-1.
“It was really a good tournament for me,” Madrid said. He had a between-the-legs shot April 19 against Furman University and the match-clinching win Saturday against Chattanooga before prolonging the finals on Sunday.
Earlier in the day, the women didn’t blow a lead of any sort like the men. They trailed for the entirety of the match to the point where the championship seemed all but won in Charleston’s favor.
Trailing 3-0 and having lost four of the first six sets of the singles matches, Johnston and junior Bryn Khoury needed comebacks to keep the Phoenix alive. Jansaker and sophomore Barbora Lazarova were the only two Elon players to win their first sets. They converted their second sets into Phoenix wins to pull within 3-2 of the Cougars.
Early on, things were not looking good for Khoury at the No. 4 spot. Dropping the first set in convincing fashion, 6-1, she stormed back to take the second and third sets, 6-3 each, to give the Phoenix a fighting chance.
“I knew I owed it to my team,” Khoury said. “I beat her last time. I knew I could beat her again if I put my head into it, calmed the nerves and hit the ball like I can.”
As Khoury finished bringing the women all the way back, Johnston was fighting back on Newman at No. 1 singles after falling in the first set.
“I at least wanted to give Bryn the opportunity to finish her match and have that chance for the team to win,” Johnston said. “Honestly though, I wasn’t really paying attention. I was zoned in.”
When Khoury was finished, Johnston was leading the tiebreaker for the second set. She tied the match at one set apiece with a 7-4 win in the tiebreaker to send the No. 1 singles match to a third and final decisive set with the winner taking the SoCon title for her team.
The same thing happened in the men’s match when Madrid deadlocked the score at three. Silverman had dropped the first set but broke senior Zac Dunkle in the second set to tie the match at one. Like the women’s match, the SoCon title came down to the third set of the No. 1 singles match.
Key breaks in key spots ended up being the downfall for the Phoenix. Newman broke Johnston to go up 4-2 while Dunkle broke Silverman multiple times to take a 6-3 third set win and the title for Samford.
“Samford was a little more energetic and competing a little stronger in some spots and I think that changed the momentum,” Leonard said. “We had so much momentum during the doubles, I thought if we came out a little stronger in singles it could have changed things.”
While Johnston made a comeback with a break of her own, Newman again broke Johnston late to take the final set 7-5 and the championship for the Cougars.
“It was kind of a triangle of emotions,” Johnston said. “Of wanting to puke, barely being able to stand from exhaustion and really having fun. I was fortunate enough to be in this situation and my teammates helped me do that. There was so much emotion in that last set. Christin played a great set and I had my chances, but that’s how the cookie crumbles.”
Though upset by the losses, both teams look toward the bright future with the youth and talent each of the teams possess. Silverman was named Player of the Year while Johnston was named to first-team all-conference singles. She is joined by her season-long partner Jansaker on first-team all-conference doubles while Khoury and Jansaker were named to the second-team all-SoCon singles.
Both teams will only graduate one player. On the men’s side, it’s Carlos Arboleda.
“We are still a very young team, so we will have more chances next year,” Madrid said. “We have a lot of potential. In the offseason we need to work on a few things. We also need to gain some experience and use the loss to motivate us.”
For the women, Berne departs, having been what Anderson called a “major player” through Elon’s last four years. Both the returning players and coaches agree the two programs are going in the right direction.
“Every year we’ve taken a step forward,” Khoury said. “Next year, we’re going for blood without a doubt. We both want the ring, especially after this year.”
With additional reporting by Jordan Spritzer, senior reporter.