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Lightning strikes a second time for Stanford tennis

Forget Duck Hunting Season. For the No. 11 Stanford women’s tennis team (18-2, 8-2 Pac-12), Bear Hunting Season was in full swing on Thursday, as the Cardinal took down No. 6 Cal (20-5, 10-0 Pac-12) to claim a spot in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament. The Big Slam rematch between the two Pac-12 powerhouses was touted as the best of the Sweet 16 matchups prior to Thursday’s action, and the match certainly lived up to the hype.

Freshman Caroline Doyle preserved Stanford's NCAA title hopes, pulling out her match against Maegan Manasse to propel the Cardinal into the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament. (NORBERT VON DER GROEBEN/Isiphotos.com)

Freshman Caroline Doyle (above) fell behind 5-3 in the deciding third set of her singles match with Stanford and Cal knotted at 3-3, but she successfully defended two match points and pulled off an unbelievable comeback to spur the Card to their Elite Eight berth. (NORBERT VON DER GROEBEN/Isiphotos.com)

The day got off to a rather inauspicious start, as rain in Athens, Georgia, ultimately delayed the match for two hours, forcing the teams to make the hour and a half trek to the indoor courts at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. After getting in a quick warm-up in mint green “Talk Nerdy to Me” shirts, the Cardinal got down to business as usual.

The doubles point was almost an exact repeat of the doubles point from Stanford’s Senior Day, when Cal took the point and went on to take the entire match. Coming in, the odds looked good for Stanford to strike first blood, though, especially after the No. 10-ranked duo of senior Kristie Ahn and freshman Carol Zhao took down Cal’s No. 41 Lynn Chi and Anett Schutting at the Pac-12 Tournament last month.

Unfortunately, the point slipped away after an 8-4 loss by freshman Caroline Doyle and senior Amelia Herring, who has been playing in place of Doyle’s regular-season partner, sophomore Krista Hardebeck, and a rare setback for junior Ellen Tsay and freshman Taylor Davidson.

For the Cardinal, going down 1-0 has not been a good sign on previous occasions this season, as both regular season losses came after losing the doubles point to UCLA and Cal. On Thursday, though, past history had no bearing on the final outcome.

Despite a quick loss on court two by No. 51 Hardebeck, the Card kept its focus and pulled to within 2-1 after a rock-solid performance from No. 21 Zhao, who breezed past No. 18 Schutting on court three. It was a much-needed win for the freshman after a disappointing Pac-12 Tournament performance and a rare singles loss during the previous match against Cal. Subsequently, a victory on court one by No. 3 Ahn evened the score, but when No. 54 Tsay dropped her match to Klara Fabikova to put the Bears ahead 3-2, the pressure was on for the Cardinal, setting the stage for the drama.

On court four, No. 50 Davidson looked strong through the first two sets. However, she began cramping up in the third set, requiring a trainer to attend to her on the court. After a brief injury timeout, though, she only got stronger, firing groundstrokes and serves for which Cal’s Chi had no response. Once Davidson took the third set in her own match, she put the Card’s fate squarely in Doyle’s hands.

On court six, Doyle became the real star of the day for the Cardinal. Down 5-3 in the third set as the two teams rested at a 3-3 tie, the pressure was on for the No. 57-ranked freshman from San Francisco. With her teammates cheering her on from the sidelines, Doyle made a huge comeback against Cal’s Maegan Manasse to even the set at 6-6. From there, Manasse did not have a chance, as Doyle ripped through the tiebreaker without dropping a point, securing the match for Stanford.

“I’m just thrilled,” Doyle said after the match. “It was a very dramatic finish, but I’m super pumped that we were able to get through a very tough Cal team and moving onto the quarters. Kind of a blur, but it’s definitely an amazing feeling.”

The victory against Cal places Stanford back at the top of the Pac-12, and the win will certainly provide an invaluable confidence boost if the Cardinal end up facing fifth-seeded UCLA in the championship match.

“It just really shows how strong we are and how ready we are for NCAAs,” Doyle said. “And to be the higher seed especially, it shows that we’re here to play and we’re not going anywhere.”

So far, at least, that assessment seems accurate, because history appears to be repeating itself in Georgia. Almost exactly a year ago, 12th-seeded Stanford fought in a marathon Round of 16 match against conference foe USC to win 4-3. During the regular season last year, the Cardinal had lost 6-1 to the Trojans.

Sound familiar?

That is because this year, the 11th-seeded Cardinal also found themselves in the underdog position coming into the Sweet 16, especially after losing 6-1 to the Bears in the last meeting between the two teams.

“Before the match, we talked a lot about the symmetry of last year,” Doyle acknowledged. “We talked a lot about that and how to never give up. It’s crazy, another dramatic finish, but we definitely were prepared. We knew that it wasn’t a downfall, per se, that we lost to them before. It definitely gave us extra motivation to beat them.”

The symmetry is especially apparent with regards to Doyle’s own clutch performance. Doyle, who is the team’s winningest player at 31-5, appears to be stepping into the role held by current sophomore Krista Hardebeck last season. In 2013, Hardebeck ultimately clinched an NCAA title game berth for the Cardinal after mounting a dramatic comeback in the face of tremendous odds against Florida in the semifinals. Thursday’s thrilling showing from Doyle, coupled with her solid Pac-12 Tournament play and her match-clinching win in the round of 32, only strengthens the parallel between the two players.

The Card will hope that Doyle continues her dominance going forward, as Stanford faces a strong opponent in third-seeded Virginia in the quarterfinals. Virginia (24-5, 12-2 ACC) is coming off a 4-1 victory over No. 14 Baylor, and the perennial tennis powerhouse will certainly present a challenge for the burgeoning Cardinal.

“[We’ll] just keep taking it one match at a time,” Doyle said. “We’ll probably celebrate a little, but we’ve got to keep moving on quickly, not think about this match too much and keep focusing on the brand new team we have ahead of us and what we have to do to get to the next round.”

Stanford faces No. 3 Virginia at 9:00 a.m. on Saturday with a spot in the Final Four on the line.

Contact Fiona Noonan at fnoonan@stanford.edu.