The SUNY New Paltz women’s tennis team are sort of like the NHL’s 2004 Stanley Cup Champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning; they both came out on top yet had no chance at a repeat title the following season.
In the case of both teams, their seasons after their championships were canceled, bringing their winning momentum to a grinding halt.
“It was two days before we were supposed to depart to Florida when we were told that our trip had been canceled, and a day after we were told our spring season had been completely canceled,” said third-year team member Trinity Chow. “I was quite shocked and denied it at first; it was too sudden.”
The Hawks had an absolutely dominant 2019 season: a 9-1 record, capped off by a 5-2 victory in the championship deciding meet against Oneonta on Oct. 13. With their sport’s season being split into both the fall and spring semesters, they were on course to begin battling for NCAA’s Division III Championship come March.
But the team’s chance never came. Coupled with the team’s celebrated veteran captain Victoria Zezula’s untimely departure, it was a dark time for the tennis team. Yet as they say in any sport, “There’s always next year.” Of course, the Hawks truly took that message to heart.
“We’ve had the team out in training every day,” said women’s tennis coach Rob Bruley. “It is voluntary, they don’t have to do it but they’re all turning up and want to play. I think it’s good for the students to take their minds off of academics and what’s going on in the world,” he said.
With small group training sessions for all New Paltz athletics beginning a little over a month ago, all teams are trying their hand at making the most out of a non-competitive fall season.
“We’re already a small team to begin with compared to other sports so to us, it feels like a normal practice,” Chow said. “We are just happy to be able to go out and practice together especially with everything going on today. Personally, I feel privileged that we get to have three practices a week so I’ll take what I can get.”
Despite his fun and energetic practices, Bruley’s unwavering dedication to strong results, even during a “non-season,” remains the same.
“Tennis is like golf,” Bruley said. “You’ve got to be hitting consistently, you can’t just leave it and pick it up again straight away, it’s all about timing and eye-hand-ball coordination.”
Another strange element of this year’s team is the addition of two accomplished freshmen: Tatiana Barnett from Port Washington and Loretta Donovan from Bethlehem. Entering their first year of college athletics, they face anything but a normal year ahead of them.
“It’s so weird, even for me,” Bruley said. “I kind of know them, but I don’t. It was the middle of September before I actually had the two students on the court and it was a very weird situation for me.”
Fortunately for the newcomers, the season’s structure meant that they did not have to go through preseason, conditioning or challenge matches and instead got right down to business. They even push the team’s established athletes to go above and beyond workouts on the court.
“The athletic department is offering yoga and workouts for anybody to turn up, and my team is signing up for everything,” Bruley said. “I think it’s driven a little bit by the freshmen; they’re eager to get some kind of college experience.”
Keeping the reigning SUNYAC champs focused on the metaphorical light at the end of the COVID tunnel where they can challenge for a title once again is impertinent for the team’s morale, especially when the world around us seems to change on a dime every day.
“Being able to see, talk and play with my teammates has been a huge help to my stress,” Chow said. “If we didn’t have practice, I think I would have gone crazy during the first two weeks of school.”
“I keep telling [them] that they’re very lucky, because a lot of the fall sports won’t have a season,” Bruley said. “They’ve got their fingers crossed for spring and they’re working out as hard as they can.”