When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the 2020 NC State women’s tennis season, it was in the middle of a historic 18-3 season. While that record was good enough to give NC State the No. 8 ranking to start the season, many in the program felt pressure to repeat what the team had started in 2020. Despite the pressure, the team was able to pick up right where it left off.
“Given the progress that we made in 2019 and 2020, we were somewhat uniquely positioned for [COVID-19] to really damage us,” said head coach Simon Earnshaw. “Fortunately, I think our biggest success is being able to have continuity despite the lack of it.”
NC State made it through the first chunk of nonconference play relatively unscathed. The Pack dropped its second match of the year, falling to Northwestern 4-3, but that was the team’s only nonconference loss in a season that included matchups with three teams ranked in the top 25: then-No. 14 South Carolina, then-No. 18 UCF and then-No. 21 Tennessee.
The Wolfpack kept on rolling in conference play, winning eight of its first 10 matches. The two losses both came against top 15 teams including a hard-fought 5-2 loss to then-No. 5 Florida State. That stretch of games is where NC State really found its stride, especially in its trip to take on No. 29 Miami.
“I think the win in Miami was important,” Earnshaw said. “It’s not an easy place to go. Very few teams go down there and win. We lost five or six tiebreaks in that match and still won the match. I think that showed you the depth and character of this team. In any normal occasion, that match would be a loss.”
However, NC State struggled in the month of April. In only five matches, the team went 3-2. Those losses were to worthy opponents but the biggest loss of all came in NC State’s first match of the ACC Championship. For the second time in the season, NC State would fall to then-No. 16 Georgia Tech and be sent home in the quarterfinals of the ACC Championship.
Whether an adjustment was made or the team just needed rest, NC State came ready to play when it started the NCAA team championships three weeks later. The Wolfpack breezed through its regional, taking down VCU, 4-1, and Iowa State, 4-2, before heading to Orlando, Florida for the round of 16.
Once in Orlando, the team seemed to perform at an even higher level than it had all season. That may have been thanks to the relaxed NCAA regulations the team could operate under once all the players and coaches were living together.
“That was actually a bit of a relief at NCAAs,” Earnshaw said. “We were able to actually, a couple of times, have everybody all at the same table for dinner. As silly as it sounds, everything forced you to be apart outside of when you were together at practice.”
The team went on to win another pair of matches, coming against then-No. 35 USC, 4-1, and then-No. 3 Georgia, 4-2. Getting to the final four without even reaching a decisive seventh match had everyone in the program believing that a championship was attainable.
“Our goal was to make it to the final four, for sure,” Earnshaw said. “I think anytime, and I tell the girls this all the time from my previous experiences, if you make it to the final four, why are you not trying to win?”
Despite playing some of its best tennis of the year, NC State fell in the final four against the eventual champions, then-No. 2 Texas, in a 4-0 defeat. The team came up just short of a title, but a run so deep in the NCAA team championships is only to be viewed as an accomplishment.
This year may have been a breakout year for the Wolfpack, but Earnshaw had been waiting for his team to ascend to this level. That’s not to say that he was displeased with the season, but he certainly wasn’t surprised by all of the team’s accomplishments.
“I think we were aiming higher, to be honest with you,” Earnshaw said. “I wouldn’t say that we’re unhappy with how it all played out, but there’s definitely some areas that we felt we could’ve done better this year.”