Five years ago today, the Vanderbilt Commodores claimed their first Women’s Tennis Championship. Here’s a look back at one of the best teams to ever compete for the Black and Gold.
When teams win championships that weren’t expected, it is often called improbable, but that is not the case with the 2015 Women’s Tennis Team. A mix of seasoned upper classmen, talented sophomores, a regular season slump followed by a “come to Jesus” team meeting, led this Vanderbilt Squad to the first SEC Tournament and NCAA Championship in program history. It wasn’t improbable, just unexpected.
I spoke with Sydney Campbell about her experience as a Sophomore on the team. The year before, “we made it to the Sweet Sixteen and a match or two away from winning the Regular Season [SEC Championship],” she said.
Since 1980, Florida and Georgia have won 34 of the 39 possible SEC Championships in Women’s Tennis. For any other team to win the title, it would be unexpected. Winning the SEC is like winning a national title because of UF’s and UGA’s dominance. It is also the crucible that can prepare a team to win NCAA’s.
The Regular Season
The 2015 team was led by seniors Ashleigh Antal and Marie Casares. Then by juniors Astra Sharma, Courtney Colton, and Frances Altick. Campbell, a sophomore, played number one, but she credits Antal, Casares, and Sharma as the leaders on the team, specifically Casares, “She was as cool as a cucumber. She’s mentally strong, like in life. We all had faith in her.”
They started the season with three straight wins, albeit against traditionally lesser competition, beating Harvard (4-0), Texas (5-0), and Memphis (7-0).
Then the Dores lost four of their next five, losing to Cal, OkSt, USC, and Standford, each 3-4, except against the Pokes, where they lost 2-4.
“I think this team started off kind of rough. We almost had a losing record in the regular season.”
It’s important to point out NCAA Tennis scoring. The first point is awarded for the preponderance of wins in the doubles sets. Whichever teams wins a majority of the doubles matches gets a point. Then it is a race to four. Whenever a team gets to four points, the team match is over, and even if there are individual matches on the courts, they walk off.
In the case of their early season victories, those matches were exhibition style, giving each team the opportunity to play out their matches for experience. Once the regular season started, it became evident that this Vanderbilt team had a long way to go.
Yet, they believed in themselves. There was only a single victory amidst the four losses, against Duke- the number four team in the country. They knew they could and should be better, especially after defeated a quality opponent like the Blue Devils.
So they had a meeting. It was time to call each other to the carpet and rally for the remainder of the season.
“We were struggling early on in the season, and no one would have thought we could do what we did. A couple of us came together and were like ‘hey we need to be a more of a team. We don’t need to be best friends, but we have one common goal. We need to work harder and keep each other accountable. From that moment forward, we lost one more match the rest of the season.”
“We would go around the night before the match and talk about our team goal and our individual goals for each match. We’d go to each other and say ‘I noticed this was a goal and you didn’t really do that’ or ‘hey, your attitude in practice could be pulled up a bit.’ And being receptive to it is also a big part. They are just trying to make you better. It’s a good thing.”
“It’s hard to know how to hold people accountable without being rude. We don’t like the same things. We were all very different people that year, but we all wanted to be good.”
Sitting at 4-4, the Dores ran off 13 of their next 14. They plowed through the SEC with victories against Mississippi St, Ole Miss, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, Arkansas, Auburn, South Carolina, Florida, and LSU. In that run, they only lost 19 team points while winning 61 points.
Their only two losses came in 3-4 matches to UGA and Texas A&M. The final loss in College Station cost them the regular SEC Championship.
“One match at a time was our mantra.”
Heading into the SEC Tournament, the Commodores were the 4-seed. They were paired in their opening match with 5-seed Alabama, a team they defeated 4-3 just two weeks prior.
They rolled over the Tide 4-0, facing off next against 1-seed UF. Despite winning against the Gators earlier in the year, Vanderbilt did not feel the respect as a better team. They knew UF was the favorite, so they took it one match at at time.
“We had Florida in the semis. We had just beaten Florida at home for our Senior Day, so we all knew we could do it. We weren’t shocked we beat them.”
They dominated 4-2.
“We beat them and were like “holy crap we’re in the finals, but against Georgia.”
The Championship match the next day was against 2-seed UGA. This was one of two conference teams in the regular season who bested Vanderbilt. It would be a dog (dawg?) fight for the Tournament crown.
“Intensity and emotions were the highest they had been that year.”
They won they doubles point quickly and then went up 3-0 after back to back singles victories from Fraces Altick (6-4, 6-1) and Astra Sharma (6-2, 6-1).
Then in a series of hotly contested matches including two tie-breakers, the Dores lost three in a row. The final set Marie Casares, the No. 100 ranked player squared off against the Bulldawgs’, Caroline Brinson the No. 83-seed player.
“I was so nervous. I lost. I didn’t play well in singles- I played well in doubles- but I went to the bathroom and sobbed because I thought I had let the team down. Our athletic trainer who doubled as our therapist came in and told me I needed to get out there and cheer my team on.”
Casares lost the opening set rather badly, 3-6. Then she bounced back winning the second set 6-3.
“Marie was the last one on. She was as cool as a cucumber. She’s mentally strong, like in life. We all had faith in her, and it was what we were all working towards, but [winning the SEC] was not on our radar. To be there and have it minutes away from you was a feeling none of us knew how to handle.”
In the final set, Casares found Brinson’s weakness, hitting backhand chips that Brinson could not confidently return. Casares put Brinson out 6-4.
“We thought we were on cloud nine and life could not get any better. We felt we had one the national championship, but we hadn’t. That’s how much it meant to us.”
After conference tournaments, tennis players have about a month before the NCAA tournament kicks off. So for Vanderbilt students, who missed the last week of school for the SECT, they get back to school and study for and take finals, then slowly start practicing again. Also, according to Campbell, “it’s a time to rehab injuries.”
The NCAA Tennis Tournament, like many other non-revenue sports, hosts the first two rounds at one of the 16 national seeds’ campuses. Vandy, the 4-national seed, hosted Ohio State, Murray State, and Oklahoma.
“You don’t ever want to look over a team. The first match, though, is usually not a very difficult match. That next match can get tricky because it is a team that can play.”
“Our coaches did a good job of telling us ‘every round is winnable and every match is losable. So play it like it is your last.’”
They easily dispatched against Murray State and then Oklahoma 4-0. It was time to travel to Waco, TX, where the rest of the tournament was hosted.
Every national seed made it to Waco save Alabama, the 13th. They lost to Clemson in the second round, and the Tigers would be Vanderbilt’s Sweet Sixteen opponent.
Like they had all season- since their team meeting in late February, they dispatched of Clemson 4-0. But they stared down a conference nemesis, the Florida Gators, in the Elite Eight.
Florida had been the class of the SEC, having won 28 SEC Tournament Championships. Prior to 2015, only Georgia has won the SEC Tournament, with eight wins.
“We were overlooked as a school for years, and at that point we were just trying to prove ourselves, like, ‘yeah we can play.’”
Vanderbilt, like they did in the SEC Tournament, had to come from behind to win the match. They won the doubles point, but then lost three of the next four.
“Two of my best friends played for Florida, so I was like ‘hey guys.’ There wasn’t animosity, per say, but we became rivals that year. They didn’t want to lose to us again.”
Down 3-2, the comeback started with Ashleigh Antal. Antal dropped her first match, so with her back against the wall (or Baylor Tennis Center fence), Antal won the next two matches 6-4, 6-2 to tie the team match 3-3.
“We should not have won that match given the circumstances. And credit to Antal for coming back and winning her match to give Sharma a chance.”
The final point for the Dores, and the nail in the coffin for the Gators, came at the hands of Astra Sharma. Sharma, a red-shirt freshman, had faced off against Gator Josie Kulhman twice already in the season, and defeated her both times. This time would be no different.
“Sharma was full body cramping, calmed herself down, got the cramps out and won that match for us.”
In the Semifinals and Finals, the team would face off against a pair of rivals— not Commodore rivals, but rivals to each other. USC and UCLA were their next two opponents, and also the number one seed and defending National Champions, respectively.
The Trojans breezed through the tournament until they met the buzz saw that were the Commodores. Vandy defeated USC handily, 4-0. Courtney Colton and Sydney Campbell won the first doubles match, followed by Ashleigh Antal and Astra Sharma. The next two points were earned in straight sets by Colton and Altick, with their USC counterparts only winning seven total games. The last point was won by Sharma 6-2, 3-6, 6-2. The rest of the team walked off— or in a more formal way went “unfinished.”
For the final match, the squad kept to their mantra, one match at a time. “We were just happy to be there and stay out there as long as it takes and have fun. We wanted to have the confidence to know we could do it but not put the expectation on you and freak out if you struggle.”
UCLA was the defending champions. “I think they walked into that match thinking they were going to win it again.”
The Bruins put up more of a fight than their cross town counter parts, winning two games. It was a near replay of the semifinal with Colton/Campbell and Antal/Sharma winning doubles.
“We just kept saying ‘it was another day in Central Texas to play a tennis match,’ to keep the pressure off. But everyone was feeling it. Everyone was nervous, but I was like, ‘guys it’s fine.’ Then after doubles finished and it was time for singles, it switched, and everyone else was okay and I became really nervous, like ‘holy crap we’re playing for the National Championship.’ I think it was because we had won doubles and were only three points away.”
However the singles played out much differently.
Antal was the first on the board, winning in straight sets. However, her last set was won on a tie breaker. Campbell’s match finished next with a loss in two, 6-4, 6-1. Colton won hers in two, but the first was a tie breaker. Altick dropped two hard fought sets, 7-5, 6-4, bringing the team match two 3-2.
“When I’m nervous, my feet go. We were tired. It was hot and we had played a lot tennis. I was at the back fence a lot between points doubled over trying to catch my breath. Everyone is so tired. It’s way too much tennis in such a short amount of ton. My legs felt like bricks.”
Ashtra Sharma, the Vanderbilt star throughout the postseason, and MVP of the Tournament, had dropped her first set, 3-6 to Chanelle Van Nguyen, the #21 ranked player in the NCAA. Sharma and Marie Casares were the only two Commodores left. Casares won her first set, but lost her second.
Sharma bounced back with a win. Both players were locked up in a tight one with the National Championship on the line. Van Nguyen did not make it easy, winning for games inside the championship set, but Sharma’s powerful serve was too much for the Bruin to handle.
Upon the final point, Casares’ match was left unfinished and a fleet of Commodores beared into each others’ arms to celebrate the first Tennis Championship in school history.
“We were such the underdogs the whole way through, I think everyone was shocked we made it through. It’s really hard to win the thing.”