By Alexa Corse
Stanford women’s tennis had more questions than certainty regarding its lineup going into the 2015-16 season, an unusual situation given the Cardinal’s long-established role as the standard-bearer of the sport.
The issue of openings in the lineup was made particularly acute by the temporary absence of Carol Zhao, Stanford’s usual No. 1, for the opening half of the season.
With as many as three spots up for grabs (out of a six-person lineup), the incoming class of freshmen was situated to play an outsized role in the team’s performance this season. The team could draw confidence from the fact that three of its freshmen were blue-chip recruits, among the top-25 in their high school senior classes: Melissa Lord, Caroline Lampl and Kimberly Yee.
“I think we knew as a team that we were a little young,” head coach Lele Forood said. “We had tremendous confidence that [our freshmen] were going to be to be really outstanding players for us.”
The freshmen rose to the challenge. And as Stanford claimed its 18th NCAA title in a dramatic 4-3 victory over Oklahoma State on Tuesday, it was the freshmen’s contributions that made it all possible.
“We needed our freshmen,” Foorod said after Stanford had claimed the NCAA Championship. “Their learning curve had to go up substantially this year, and clearly that happened.”
With Zhao’s return to the team’s lineup leaving two spots open for freshmen, Lampl and Lord ultimately assumed the roles of Stanford’s usual No. 5 and No. 6 respectively, as the regular season wound to a close. In the postseason, the duo took their already impressive play to a new level.
Lampl and Lord were the only Cardinal players who went undefeated during the title run. Lampl went 5-0 at the No. 5 spot (her first round match was uncompleted), while Lord followed suit with a 6-0 record at No. 6. Given that Stanford’s NCAA tournament run included four nail-biting 4-3 victories, every win was crucial.
Lampl thrived in the spotlight in the semifinals against defending NCAA champion Vanderbilt, when she clinched Stanford’s victory with a dramatic 6-4, 6-7 (4), 6-3 win at the No. 5 spot. The win over Vanderbilt’s Fernanda Contreras (a fellow freshman standout) marked the seventh time Lampl clinched a dual match for Stanford — twice as many as any of her other teammates.
“We had a rough start to the year,” Lampl said after Stanford defeated Vanderbilt and secured its spot in the NCAA final. “It didn’t look good at first, but we worked so incredibly hard. We used those two losses against Vanderbilt and Ole Miss at the beginning of the year to motivate us.”
Lord handily dispatched her opponents in straight sets in three of six rounds during the NCAA tournament, including her 6-1, 6-0 rout over Michigan’s Teona Velehorschi in the quarterfinal.
Lord’s three other NCAA matches went to three sets, but Lord never lost more than two games in the third set during the tournament.
In the Round of 16 against No. 2 seed Florida, Lord defeated No. 63-ranked Anna Danilina 3-6, 7-6 (0) 6-2, which evened the dual match score at 3-3, and thus made possible junior Taylor Davidson’s clinching singles win. Lord’s win over Danilina further demonstrated that the young Cardinal brought forth her best game for the postseason, since Lord had fallen to Danilina twice during the regular season.
In the NCAA final, both freshmen forced third sets and notched victories that evened the dual match score at 3-3, rendering moot Oklahoma’s State early 3-1 lead. Forood said that, despite the deficit, she was always confident that the two freshmen would yet again find a way to win.
“We had lost the first sets at Nos. 5 and 6, but I really felt good that we were going to get ourselves back into those matches,” Forood said.
Throughout the season, Stanford’s freshmen laid the groundwork for the team’s victories. In the NCAA final, the youngest Cardinal players did so again — on their biggest stage yet.
Contact Alexa Corse at corsea ‘at’ stanford.edu.