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Thursday August 18th

UNC women's tennis seniors await eligibility decision for another chance at NCAA title

UNC senior Makenna Jones smiles following a successful volley during her singles match against the University of Michigan at the Cone-Kenfield Tennis Center in Chapel Hill, N.C., on Feb. 1, 2020.  The Tar Heels went on to secure a 4-0 victory against Michigan.
Buy Photos UNC senior Makenna Jones smiles following a successful volley during her singles match against the University of Michigan at the Cone-Kenfield Tennis Center in Chapel Hill, N.C., on Feb. 1, 2020. The Tar Heels went on to secure a 4-0 victory against Michigan.

The North Carolina women's tennis team had been unstoppable in 2020.

Led by three seniors, the No. 1 Tar Heels had won the ITA National Women's Team Indoor Championship and defeated five of the top ten teams in the country, overcoming challenges in their pursuit of a perfect season. Despite thriving against all competition, UNC's season — along with the rest of the world — came to a halt when the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic set in.

The team spent an emotional spring break training session in the Bahamas trying to understand how such a promising season had been derailed and what their future would hold. It was there, after a week of bonding with some of their best friends, that the three Tar Heel seniors, Alexa Graham, Sara Daavettila and Makenna Jones, grappled with the reality that this could potentially be the end of their time in a UNC jersey.

"All of the sudden our ACC season was canceled, and we just kind of were sitting there trying to understand how this was possible and what life was going to look like now," Jones said.

The trio faced an emotional rollercoaster, trying to hold out hope to continue one of the best seasons in program history. Jones was the first to find out that the NCAA Tournament had been canceled.

"I showed my coach first. He didn't even know. I was the first person to show him the news (on Twitter)," she said. "It was just really sad because we were so proud of what we had accomplished already this season, and not only that, but we still had so much to gain. We had so many experiences to still be had."

The feelings that followed were a blur, a mix of happy memories and the sinking reality that their season that seemed to have just begun was now finished. The moment — being in a tropical paradise and realizing they wouldn't be finishing what they started when they arrived home — was bittersweet at best.

"I know that the NCAA is probably doing their best, but it is really difficult to imagine having seen the fate of your last season through a tweet," Jones said. "That's definitely not the best-case scenario."

The women's tennis team held its final meeting of the season that day in the Bahamas. Even some of the more reserved players couldn't contain their emotion. Tears were shed and memories were shared. Jones said the moment was unforgettable.

"In our last meeting before we left, there was a lot of emotion and crying and reflecting on not only the great season we had, but what could have been," head coach Brian Kalbas said.

Jones reflected on trying to remain positive even as the end seemed inevitable. She characterized herself as optimistic and focused on finding the silver lining in the end of what had been a perfect season.

"We didn't get a chance to win (the NCAA Tournament), but at the same time, what we did up until that moment was amazing, and I think that everyone should be really proud of that," Jones said.

In the midst of her optimism, Jones still mourns what was taken away by COVID-19. Like many seniors throughout college athletics right now, she struggles with the idea of not getting a final moment with her team.

"You go your whole four years waiting for your Senior Day, waiting for your last match, for the last time you get to compete on your home courts," Jones said. "and I didn't get any of those moments."

Still, there's a possibility that the NCAA grants another year of eligibility for spring sport athletes, which would mean another year in Carolina Blue and a shot to complete unfinished business.

"It would be an absolute dream to play another year at Carolina, represent the school, play under Coach," Daavettila said. "These are the best years of our lives, and it's gone by way too fast."

Not wanting to let the opportunity slip past, the three senior teammates started making plans. Jones said the three have an apartment for next year, and she has already started to look at graduate school options. All that's left to do is wait for the NCAA to vote on the issue on March 30.

"UNC is my home, it's where I want to be, and I have loved being here for every second of it," Jones said. "If I could get more time here, I would take it in an absolute heartbeat."

@MaryMacPorter1

@DTHSports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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