Close-knit Sagehen women’s tennis team hoping for top seed in NCAA tournament

A woman swings a tennis racket over her right shoulder as a tennis ball flies to the left of the image.
Maria Lyven PO ’22 returns a serve in the Sagehens’ close 5-4 loss to Middlebury March 27, 2019. (Amy Best • The Student Life)

In her three-plus years as a Sagehen, Jay Kim’s PZ ’20 tennis team has enjoyed a level of success that most Division III schools can only dream of.

The Hens have reached the NCAA tournament all three years and were ranked No. 5 in the country last postseason.

But there’s one huge roadblock — one looming hurdle that stops Kim and her teammates year after year from advancing past the second round. And it resides just across the street.

“It’s been the same thing for three years, where we’re top-five in the country. We do really well, but then we always lose to them in the round of 16,” she said.

She’s referring, of course, to the Claremont-Mudd-Scripps Athenas, who have dominated the SCIAC for nearly a decade and won a national title two years ago.

Pomona-Pitzer (3-0, 2-0 SCIAC) is a powerhouse in its own right, but always comes up short against CMS. It’s a fact that irks Kim.

“It’s so annoying,” she said. “It’s really discouraging.”

P-P is routinely one of the top teams in the country, but due to NCAA rules that seed the postseason tournament by region, it always finds itself in a bracket with its Sixth Street rivals, and continually gets bounced early as a result.

“Half the teams that end up going to the Elite Eight, we’ve beaten in the regular season,” Kim said.

And as for winning the SCIAC tournament?

“My friend was saying winning SCIACs would almost be the same in terms of skill level as winning nationals,” Kim said, “because the level we would have to be at to win SCIACs is the same.”

One way to advance further in the NCAA tournament is simply to beat CMS. The other, which P-P is pinning its hopes on, is to attain such a high seed during the regular season that those who decide the postseason bracket have no choice but to allow the Sagehens to play in a different region — something that Kim said the NCAA has done for elite East Coast teams in previous years. 

With that in mind, Kim said P-P isn’t setting its sights solely on toppling the Athenas this season; wins over top programs like Emory and Middlebury will be just as important for securing a high seed.

“The mistake we’ve made in the past is beating [CMS has been] our main goal,” she said.

Another difference this year is the size of the P-P team; just nine members, down from 16 during Kim’s first year and about a dozen last season. Kim sees this as a positive.
“With the nine, we’re a lot closer,” she said. “It’s just easier to plan things so I think naturally everyone comes closer. It’s just really drama-free.”

Three newcomers — Patria Aziz PZ ’23, Janie Marcus PO ’23 and Georgia Ryan PO ’23 — will play key roles as the Sagehens embark on the 2019 campaign. Kim said she looks to the energy of the first-years when she needs belief that her team can overcome the Athenas.

“I see how optimistic they are,” she said. “They’re really hopeful, and they work hard.”

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