La Roche women's tennis team's turnaround leads to playoff bid
For La Roche women's tennis coach Aaron Wilf, the season began with frustration.
“I knew we had talent; we just weren't seeing the results on the court,” Wilf said. “At that point, the goal was just to get a win.”
The Lady Red Hawks were 2-5 overall and 1-2 in conference play and heading to New York to play Medaille without one of their regular starters.
The team earned a win that day, and something changed. La Roche won five games in a row, clinching a playoff bid.
“That was the turning point,” Wilf said. “We stopped looking at the big picture and started playing one game at a time. I told the team, ‘Let's get one win.' That started an eight-match winning streak.”
Wilf tweak the lineup and found a formula that worked. Then, he moved the team closer to the school and began playing in Wexford.
At No. 1, he put Shaler graduate Victoria Shields. At No. 2, he put Senior Lynka Ineza, and at No. 3, he put Alea Marks, a senior and Penn-Trafford graduate. At No. 4, he put Doria Shima; at No. 5, he put Chelsea Wassel; and at No. 6, he put Butler graduate Melanie Ward. In doubles, Wilf teamed Shields and Marks, Ineza and Wassel and Shima and Ward.
The lineup was more important at Allegheny Mountain tournament, which used a new format this season. The event pitted team against team rather than having a No. 1 bracket, a No. 2 bracket and so on. The goal was to win five of the possible nine points — six possible singles points and three doubles points.
“I just set goals for each match,” Shields said. “I looked at the small picture, rather than the big. The main thing was staying focused and keeping our heads up after the early losses.”
At the tournament, Lady Redhawks ran into top-seeded Franciscan, but La Roche pulled the upset, 5-4.
Oddly, the stiffest test was yet to come.
The team eventually ended up in the finals against the seven-time defending champion Penn State Behrend. Penn State jumped out to a 4-1 lead, but Wilf reminded his team of something.
“We beat them earlier in the season and ended their more-than-three-year winning streak,” Wilf said. “It was stopping that streak that gave us the confidence (to get this far).”
La Roche beat Penn State once, and despite falling behind, it did accomplished the feat again. The tournament came down to Marks at No. 3 singles and what Wilf called the biggest win in school history. Marks won, 7-6, 7-3, 4-6, 6-3, to stun the champions.
Marks said she knew the situation heading in.
“I went in with a lot of determination and focus — not that I don't always — but there was a lot of pressure on this match,” Marks said. “I stayed focused, and it was a great feeling and a full team effort.”
Marks added that it was the work as a team that allowed the Lady Redhawks to overcome the early season slump and conquer the conference.
“When I was walking up to Alea after her win, I am not sure if my feet hit the ground once,” Wilf said. “Just an amazing feeling.”
La Roche will have a long time to savor the win as it earned them a trip to the NCAA Division III tournament, which will be in late May. The layoff is so long because many women's tennis teams play in the spring, but Wilf will take advantage of the break.
“We have a lot of players who are pretty beat up,” he said. “My plan is to let them rest, then rev it up in February and March, then hope to rekindle this in March and April.”
Marks said it will be important for the team to stay in touch during the winter and not get psyched out when they get back in May.
“We have to stick together,” Shields said. “We have to keep out goals (in perspective) and work our way back. We are definitely a tight group, and I am very excited about what we accomplished. We all are.”
Jerry Clark is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-779-6979 or firstname.lastname@example.org.