Rice senior tennis player Katie Gater fought through nerves and fatigue, both of which were in abundant supply, to end a streak of nine consecutive service game breaks and clinch the 2013 Conference USA Women's Tennis championship for the Owls on the John E. Hoff Courts at the University of Houston on Sunday afternoon.
The 20th ranked Owls (20-4) claimed the title with a 4-1 victory over 24th ranked Tulsa, breaking a nine-match losing streak against the Golden Hurricane and well as Tulsa's three-year reign as C-USA champs, giving the Owls their first conference crown since 2006 and an automatic return to the NCAA Championship.
"I am so proud of the team and everything they have done this season," Rice head coach Elizabeth Schmidt said. "Today was the same thing they have been doing all season. They fought from the first point to the last point. They really dug deep. They are a joy to coach and I am so proud of the effort."
Both teams took to the Hoff Courts just over 16 hours after each had emerged from grueling semifinal matches to earn the right to meet for the second consecutive year to decide the conference champion.
The doubles point, which featured a matchup of the 20th and 21st ranked teams in the country in a battle on Court One, would prove to be an early indication of how the day would proceed. In their 5-2 loss to the Golden Hurricane in early February, TU had clinched the point with wins at 1 and 3 while holding a lead 2 when the match was suspended.
Tulsa's Samantha Vickers and Isaura Enrique held form, downing Rice's 20th ranked duo of Natalie Beazant and Dominique Harmath 8-3. However the Owls were making a statement on Courts Two and Three as Gater and Liat Zimmermann responded with an 8-3 win of their own and Solomiya Zinko and Daniela Trigo raced out to a 6-2 lead.
"We knew coming in that we really needed that doubles point. We knew they weren't going away. I was really proud of Dani and Solo for stepping up after Tulsa got it back to 6-6. We told them that it was tight again and that they (Tulsa) was going to get tight again as well. It's not hard to swing free when you are down 6-2. Dani did a great job of really staying focused and staying positive. That's something we've done all year," she added.
Trigo and Zinko returned to the court and promptly broke serve to move back in front 7-6. Zinko then held her serve to give the Owls a 1-0 lead.
When singles play began, the top of the lineup featured another marquee matchup between Beazant, the 2012 C-USA Player of the Year and Vickers, who entered the weekend as the 14th ranked singles player in the country. However Schmidt was more focused on seeing the Owls reverse a trend from the previous two days that saw sluggish starts on the six courts. Less than 24 hours earlier, Rice opened singles against SMU by losing five of six first sets, setting the stage for a nearly five-hour battle.
Thankfully, the Owls obliged by racing to first set wins on four of six courts, but Schmidt knew there were difficult points ahead in the near future.
"No better time to get off to a quick start than in the finals of the conference tournament," Schmidt said. "It gets the momentum rolling and that is great, but closing match, no matter if you are up 3-0 or tied 3-3 is never easy."
While Beazant and Vickers were slugging it out on Court One, Kimberly Anicete raced out to a 6-1 first set win, and Dominique Harmath followed shortly after with a 6-2 first set win of her own. Gater added a 6-3 win and Beazant, who fell 6-0 6-2 to Vickers in February, captured her first set, 6-4.
Anicete and Harmath did not offer their opponents an opening for a comeback, extending the Rice lead to 3-0 with straight set wins. At the same time, ZInko fought back from a first set loss on Court Six to take the second set, foiling an attempt by Tulsa to make an answer on the scoreboard and possibly deflate some of the Owls momentum.
While Beazant was dropping a second set to Vickers, and Tulsa was eventually posting a point with as win on Court Three, the focus of the match centered on Gater on Court Four.
With the crowd growing along the fence in anticipation of witnessing the clinching moment, Gater and Tulsa's Saana Saarteinen showed signs of the growing importance of their second set.
Each of the first nine games resulted in a service break, but Gater was able to calm her nerves and recover enough of service game to close out Saarteinen 6-4 and set off the celebration the surrounding crowd and come to see.
"I was really proud of Kate Gater that she could clinch that match in her senior year," Schmidt said.
Schmidt and the Owls will enjoy the added sense of comfort in knowing it's not a matter of if the Owls will be in the NCAA team championship field this year, but more a matter of if they might earn the right to host a first round regional or where they will be traveling. In either case, those are easy issues to have play out while her team regroups from the events of the last three days.
"We didn't know until the day of the selections if we were in or not last year, "Schmidt said. "I'm really proud of the steps we have made these past few years. They are a testament to the players who were here today. They kept believing."