This season, the Southwestern University Pirates women's tennis team traveled roughly 1,441 miles to discover who they were and the distance still paled in comparison to how far they came as a team.
The women defeated three nationally-ranked teams in three days on the 1,441-mile trip to Fredericksburg, Virginia while competing in the Blue-Grey Invitational. In doing so, the Pirates earned the highest national ranking in program history, finishing the season ranked No. 22 by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) in Division III.
It was a stunning accomplishment for a team that lost an All-American via transfer and both of its seniors to early graduation over the summer.
"I don't think anyone would have been honest if we said we saw that coming," Head Coach Billy Porter said. "The previous two years we were loaded with an enormous amount of talent but to graduate Taite Drews-Jones and Anna Schneemann early and lose Kate Daugherty was a blow to our program.
"I was afraid we were going to lose our top 40 ranking with as much talent as we lost, so to achieve the highest ranking in school history is a testament to the women and how when you do things the right way and everyone buys in, you get the results you want."
Heading into the season, the team recalibrated its expectations. Setting them back, however, may have helped lay new foundations to build from moving forward.
"The message all year was while we weren't as good as we've been on paper, if we put our heads down and work hard, good things will happen," Porter said. "And they really bought in, starting with the junior class. This was one of the easiest teams I've coached in my entire career."
Cardone continued her stellar play on the court, finishing the regular season with a 16-1 record in singles working exclusively from the No. 1 position after splitting time between No. 1 and 2 last year. She posted wins over four nationally-ranked teams and defeated Trinity University's Caroline Kutach, the 2019 SCAC Player of the Year and No. 43-ranked DIII singles player head-to-head.
She also had a breakthrough in her third trip to the NCAA Singles Championships, advancing to the round of 16 and earning ITA All-America status. Just as important as her production was the calming influence on the team.
"She has a very calm demeanor on the court," Porter said. "She's really mature and does a great job of settling things down between points. She's the ultimate team player and has really grown understanding her role on the team and that's also helped her convert some of these tough points."
Wilde stepped into an active leadership role, posting an 11-3 record in singles working primarily from the No. 5 spot and a 13-4 record in the No. 1 position in doubles.
"Being forced into that leadership role overwhelmed her early but she overcame it and really did a great job," Porter said. "Who Cecile was by the end of the year was very different from who she was in her first two years.
"Her leadership style was different than we had before but it suited the different personalities we had and the younger classes were really comfortable with her."
Bartusov worked in and out of the singles lineup, posting a 5-0 record with three victories in the No. 4 position and a win each in the 5 and 6 spots. She also posted a 10-4 record in doubles, splitting time between the No. 2 (2-0) and 3 (8-4) positions.
"Stephanie's role changed immensely this year," Porter said. "Coach Christine Miller saw something with her and Isabel in doubles at the ITA Regionals and really pushed hard for me to consider her for doubles, which she'd never really done in her two years here. She stepped up, brought great energy, and was very coachable. I think she brought a lot of maturity for Nina at the No. 3 spot, rotating with Sara."
The team breezed through the early Texas portion of its schedule, winning eight of its first nine dual matches without dropping a single game. The Pirates' lone loss came in a 6-3 defeat at the hands of No. 13-ranked Washington University in St. Louis, dropping a handful of tiebreakers.
"It was an eye opener, we really didn't know what to expect but we had opportunities to beat them," Porter said. "You don't want to get too excited as a coach but once the women realized they could play at that level and really needed each other to pull through those tough matches, things really started heading in the right direction."
Both earned All-SCAC honors with Bowers winning 17 of 18 singles matches and going 15-5 in doubles. Quetzeri finished her season 13-3, winning 12 of 15 in the No. 3 spot and one victory in the No. 1 position.
"As the season progressed, the sophomore class really helped us get to the finish line with some monster clinches," Porter said. "Mariana was our team MVP, moving up from No. 5 to 3 and the No. 2 spot in doubles. She played through a lot of pain, practically living in training room, but really lifted us.
"Esther moved from No. 4 to 2 in singles and No. 2 to 1 in doubles and had fantastic records and really grew into a leadership role."
By the middle of March, the Pirates were running on all cylinders, thanks in no small part to assistant coach Christine Miller.
"Christine Miller deserves an enormous amount of credit. She put in a lot of work with our women's team this year," Porter said.
It was Miller who went with the women's team to Virginia while Porter traveled with the men to California. Competing at the Blue-Grey Invitational, the Pirates defeated No. 28 Gustavus Adolphus College, No. 17 University of Mary Washington, and No. 40 Bates College.
It was quite the learning experience for a first year class the Pirates were leaning on more than expected all season.
"After losing the talent we did, we asked a lot more from these first years than we anticipated," Porter said. "We kind of threw them into the fire and to their credit, they responded.
"Nina Elez was someone we thought could contribute from Day 1 even if we hadn't lost three players but she was originally penciled in for the No. 6 spot, not No. 4, and she did a great job in that and doubles despite having to rotate partners. Sara Le stepped up all year despite injuries costing her half a season and Meeshti Shethia was a wild card coming from Dubai, growing into a solid player at No. 6 singles with only one loss all year."
The Pirates swept Centenary and Austin College to open the SCAC Championships before losing to Trinity 5-2 in the championship match.
"I think we went into a tough environment playing Austin College on their home court and did a really good job of putting fires out early to get to the championship," Porter said. "Trinity was just a little deeper than us this year but I though the women did everything we asked them to do and they were rewarded with the highest ranking in school history."
Though the Pirates came a long way in a short amount of time, the distance between them and their ultimate goal is still the toughest to traverse. With so many young players taking unexpected roles, it's a journey they have plenty of time to travel together.