It was one month ago that NC State women’s tennis upset No. 1 UNC-Chapel Hill for its first-ever ACC Championship title. After the Pack’s biggest win in program history, it was only fate that the bitter rivals would meet for one last battle before the season was finished.
And of course, the third and final round between the rivals came on the biggest and brightest stage possible — the NCAA Championship final.
But when it mattered most, the Tar Heels struck back. Carolina (35-1) reclaimed the throne of college women’s tennis with a decisive 4-1 win over NC State (28-5) in the title fight, rendering the Pack just one match short of winning its first national championship.
The red-and-white had a dominant run to the final round, earning four sweeps over the past month, including a 4-0 win over No. 6 Stanford in the semifinals. But one day later, NC State fell short in both singles and doubles in its first-ever finals appearance.
“We were right there,” said head coach Simon Earnshaw. “I think we just lacked a little bit of stability and composure in the moment to kind of execute what we needed to do. It came down to a few details here and there, a couple of shots in doubles I wish we had back. But I mean, overall, it was a great season…So it's still a great accomplishment and hopefully, in time, the girls will reflect on this and realize what we did.”
NC State captured the all-important doubles point the last time the rivals met — a key part in gaining momentum for its 4-1 win in the ACC Championships. This time, UNC got ahead of the Pack’s bid for another quick start, taking the first and third doubles courts to gain a 1-0 lead. Despite No. 4 freshman Diana Shnaider and graduate student Alana Smith’s 6-4 win on court one, the Wolfpack needed a strong singles round in order to get back in it.
But besides for No. 7 Shnaider’s 6-3, 6-4 win over fellow star freshman No. 8 Reese Brantmeier, NC State fell flat in singles. The freshman’s win was the pinnacle of her performance in the tournament. She was dominant in every match from beginning to end, but NC State conceded three straight matches after Shnaider tied it at 1-1 as UNC separated itself from the Wolfpack.
“I mean, when you play a team like that, you’ve got to close them out at that moment in time,” Earnshaw said. “We've got an absolute stone-cold killer at No. 1. Diana, she's just fearless and that's why she's as good as she is. She doesn't doesn't back down and she just runs right into things and gets through.”
Carolina’s No. 1 Fiona Crawley took out No. 13 Smith in straight sets on court two, finishing off the graduate with a 7-2 win in the second set tiebreaker to make it 2-1. The Heels won another two-setter to make it 3-1 — a 7-6 (9-7), 6-3 win over No. 87 junior Abigail Rencheli.
UNC’s win over No. 26 junior Amelia Rajecki was the final nail in the coffin for NC State. Despite Rajecki pushing the match to three sets, her opponent, No. 28 Carson Tanguilig, got the better of the junior in the third set, granting a national championship victory for the Heels.
NC State’s remaining players, juniors Sophie Abrams and Gina Dittmann, were battling in their respective third sets on courts five and six. However, play was stopped after UNC clinched the win.
Carolina delivered a dose of the same medicine NC State dished out in the ACC Championships, but the three-match series between the two squads in 2023 didn’t just provide top-notch entertainment for the college tennis world.
It added to the NC State women’s tennis program legacy as one of the school’s best and most successful squads, it added to the legacy of the never-ending NC State-UNC rivalry and it added to Earnshaw’s legacy as one of the most successful coaches in school history.
“I mean, I think we're a working-class program, we're not like that other team, we’re just not created the same way. Maybe I'm going off on a tangent here — I think it's a great school for me to represent, so I’m thankful for the opportunity that I was given when nobody would give me a chance and here we are. I think it represents me well, and I'm proud of that. And my family is proud to be at NC State. I think you can see very clearly that the players love the school and love the history that goes with that.”
The Pack’s first-ever finals appearance is certainly one to build off of. It was going to be hard for NC State to eclipse its 2022 season, but the Wolfpack’s final record of 28-5, a conference championship and a national championship appearance in 2023 created a brand new high for the program.
Earnshaw and NC State aren’t done quite yet. While a new year will see roster changes, new challenges and likely some more dramatics across the season, NC State’s consistent and sharp improvement across the past few years has been evident. Earnshaw and his team have solidified themselves as a titan of college tennis and a regular title contender, and the Wolfpack will undoubtedly be competing for more titles in 2024 and beyond because of the squad’s steady rise into the upper echelon of college tennis.
“The last thing I told them was: I think anything you do in life, you want to pass it on better than when you came into it,” Earnshaw said. “I definitely think each year we're starting at a higher level. Next year — now we've accomplished this, this year — we're going to start at a higher level than we've ever been.”
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