April 27, 2003
CORAL GABLES, Fla. — In perhaps the most dramatic final in BIG EAST Conference women’s tennis history, No. 24 Notre Dame claimed its fifth BIG EAST title (and first since 2001) with a 4-3 win over 20th-ranked Miami on Sunday afternoon at the Neil Schiff Tennis Center in Coral Gables, Fla. The Irish and Hurricanes split the six singles matches, as well as the first two doubles matches, leaving the team title in the hands of the No. 2 doubles contest, which Notre Dame won 8-6. With the victory, the Irish (15-8) earn the BIG EAST’s automatic bid to the NCAA Championships which begin May 9-11 at campus sites around the country.
“This was truly an exciting and amazing match to watch,” Notre Dame head coach Jay Louderback said. “It also has to rank as one of the more special wins I’ve ever been a part of. We had never been a two-seed before this year, and we had three freshmen in our lineup going against a really experienced Miami team. But, our kids did such an unbelieveable job of battling and competing all day long, and they were able to get it done in the end.”
The Irish No. 2 doubles team of sophomore Sarah Jane Connelly (Oklahoma City, Okla./Bishop McGuinness H.S.) and freshman Kristina Stastny (St. Louis, Mo./St. Joseph’s Academy) came through with the decisive 8-6 victory to secure the league title, although for a while, it looked as though the Irish pair would win easily. Connelly and Stastny won the first six games of the match and had a 7-1 lead before Miami’s senior tandem of Igna deVilliers and Abby Smith put on their rally caps, winning five straight games to pull back on-serve at 7-6. With Smith serving to even the contest at 7-7, the Irish had their second team match point saved with an overhead by the server. On the next point, Connelly pounded an overhead of her own to give the Irish a third team match point, which they converted thanks to a double fault by Smith.
“If anyone had that final game on tape, it should go down as an ESPN Instant Classic,” Louderback said. “The last couple of points were both really long rallies that had at least 15 shots each. Both teams were playing just incredible tennis, saving overheads and getting after every ball. We had a freshman and sophomore going against their two seniors, and I couldn’t be happier for the way Sarah Jane and Kiki kept their heads even when Miami made their comeback.”
Irish junior Caylan Leslie (Newport Beach, Calif./Corona del Mar H.S.) and freshman Jennifer Smith (Charlotte, N.C./South Mecklenburg H.S.) also were instrumental in Notre Dame’s final point of the day, dominating Miami’s Staci Stevens and Mari Toro at No. 3 doubles for an 8-2 victory. In the first doubles match completed, the No. 22 team in the nation, Miami’s Melissa Applebaum and Megan Bradley, topped the Notre Dame duo fo freshman Lauren Connelly (Oklahoma City, Okla./Bishop McGuinness H.S.) and junior Alicia Salas (Englewood, Colo./Cherry Creek H.S.), 8-2.
Several of the six singles contests had their own miniature dramas, with four of them going the full three sets. Miami struck first when No. 110 Bradley downed Leslie, the nation’s 40th-ranked player, 6-4, 3-6, 6-2, at the No. 1 position. Moments later, Notre Dame got on the board, as Lauren Connelly finished off the Hurricanes’ Sihem Bennacer at the No. 5 flight, 7-6 (3), 6-3. Miami then regained the team lead when Toro closed out Stastny, 6-3, 7-6 (2) at the No. 3 spot.
Trailing 2-1 in the team match, the Irish rallied back behind a pair of astonishing third-set comebacks. At No. 4 singles, Sarah Jane Connelly fell behind 1-5 in the third set of her match with Stevens, but won the next six games to pull out the contest, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5, and even the team score. Soon after, the 93rd-ranked Salas posted a critical victory for Notre Dame, rallying from one break down in the third set to upset No. 54 Applebaum at the No. 2 position, 7-5, 4-6, 7-5.
“I talked to Sarah Jane during her changeover at 2-5 in the third and she told me there was no way she was going to lose her match,” Louderback said. “She and Alicia just refused to be beaten and were absolutely relentless in the third set. They were really important pieces to us winning this championship.”
Now leading 3-2, the Irish had a chance to win the conference title in singles play, but Miami’s Sara Robbins outlasted Smith at the No. 6 flight and tied the match at 3-all, winning 5-7, 6-4, 6-2. That set the stage for the thrilling doubles competition and Notre Dame’s nailbiting triumph.
After Saturday showers and thunderstorms prevented any tennis to be played, the Irish were forced to play both their semifinal and championship matches Sunday, beginning with the semifinals at 7 a.m (EDT). Playing singles first, Notre Dame was able to take care of third-seeded Boston College, notching a 4-0 victory to move into the final.
Salas was the first off the court for Notre Dame, taking just 54 minutes to down Nida Waseem 6-0, 6-3 at No. 2. The Irish junior won the first set in 24 minutes and took each of the initial 10 games en route to victory. Sarah Jane Connelly gave the Irish a 2-0 lead by defeating Morgan Landes 6-3, 6-1 at No. 4 and Stastny put Notre Dame a point from victory by finishing off Allison Ashley 6-4, 6-1 at No. 3.
Though she had to wait until Salas, match was finished before starting her contest (due to court availabilty limitations), Lauren Connelly provided the clinching victory with a 6-0, 6-2 win over Amy Molden at No. 5 in just 56 minutes. The Irish sophomore took only 23 minutes to complete the opening frame. The Nos. 1 and 6 matches were abandoned before completion. Leslie was up 1-0 in the third set at No. 1 after winning the opening set 7-5 and dropping the second by the same score. At the bottom of the lineup, Smith was down 4-5 in the first set when her match was called off.
— ND —
#24 Notre Dame 4, #20 Miami 3
BIG EAST Conference Championships — Final
Neil Schiff Tennis Center — Coral Gables, Fla.
No. 1: #110 Megan Bradley (UM) d. #40 Caylan Leslie (ND) 6-4, 3-6, 6-2
No. 2: #93 Alicia Salas (ND) d. #54 Melissa Applebaum (UM) 7-5, 4-6, 7-5
No. 3: Mari Toro (UM) d. Kristina Stastny (ND) 6-3, 7-6 (2)
No. 4: Sarah Jane Connelly (ND) d. Staci Stevens (UM) 6-3, 2-6, 7-5
No. 5: Lauren Connelly (ND) d. Sihem Bennacer (UM) 7-6 (3), 6-3
No. 6: Sara Robbins (UM) d. Jennifer Smith (ND) 5-7, 6-4, 6-2
Order of finish: 1, 5, 3, 4, 2, 6
No. 1: #22 Applebaum/Bradley (UM) d. L.Connelly/Salas (ND) 8-2
No. 2: *S.J. Connelly/Stastny (ND) d. Igna deVilliers/Abby Smith (UM) 8-6
No. 3: Leslie/Smith (ND) d. Stevens/Toro (UM) 8-2
Order of finish: 1, 3, 2*
#24 Notre Dame 4, Boston College 0
BIG EAST Conference Championships — Semifinal
Neil Schiff Tennis Center — Coral Gables, Fla.
No. 1: #40 Caylan Leslie (ND) vs. Szilvia Szegedi (BC) 7-5, 5-7, 1-0, aban.
No. 2: #93 Alicia Salas (ND) d. Nida Waseem (BC) 6-0, 6-3
No. 3: Kristina Stastny (ND) d. Allison Ashley (BC) 6-4, 6-1
No. 4: Sarah Jane Connelly (ND) d. Morgan Landes (BC) 6-3, 6-1
No. 5: *Lauren Connelly (ND) d. Amy Molden (BC) 6-1, 6-2
No. 6: Emily Hellberg (BC) vs. Jennifer Smith (ND) 5-4, aban.
Order of finish: 2, 4, 3, 5*
* indicates clinching match