The North Carolina women’s tennis team’s fifth ITA National Team Indoor Championship victory, sealed by a 4-3 win over Texas earlier this month, was unlike any other.
But before that, the team, who were 2020 ITA Indoor champions, was riding high in March 2020. They came off of that victory without losing a step. After defeating UCLA to win the 2020 championship, UNC also won its next eight matches. Unbeknownst to the Tar Heels, though, the remainder of the season would be cut short, and the offseason would be much longer.
That's when men’s basketball coach Roy Williams and his wife, Wanda, stepped in to provide scholarships for the senior athletes whose seasons ended prematurely due to the pandemic.
For the women’s tennis team, Sara Daavettila, Alexa Graham and Makenna Jones opted into the extra year of eligibility, looking forward to getting another chance at a full senior season.
“We felt like we still had something to prove and something we wanted to finish," Daavettila said. "It was really a no-brainer that we were all going to come back and finish what we started.”
Naturally, Graham was grateful for the chance she and her teammates received to compete for another ITA Championship again, the third of her, Daavettila and Jones’ careers.
The experience as a whole differed from the previous seasons, though. The team could not tour the city as they typically would. Eating inside of restaurants together was no longer an option. The players spent most of their time around each other for the duration of the tournament.
UNC head coach Brian Kalbas made it a point to ensure that COVID-19 regulations were respected by the team and that they prioritized safety.
“We normally get our team in a close huddle, and we do some chants and cheers and just support each other,” Kalbas said. “That’s something that we don’t do anymore during COVID. We try and be real smart.”
The rest of the team also recognized what was on the line, as having everyone available for the ITA championship was an important goal for the Tar Heels to be at full strength.
“Leading up to the tournament in particular, it was so important for us not to get COVID because that’s not just a normal match,” Graham said. “That’s the national championship. We all wanted to be there for it, and we all wanted to be playing.”
Not as many players were able to travel during every match leading into the tournament. With the returning seniors and incoming first-years, the roster size exceeded 10 players. Only 10 players can travel with the team in a typical season, per ACC rules. Making decisions on who can and cannot travel brought difficult choices upon Kalbas.
In the past, the entire team had the ability to travel to every match, but the bigger roster size impeded on that option.
"I feel bad and frustrated for some that’s not being able to, trip-to-trip, not being able to support the team," Kalbas said.
Though challenging at times, the increase of players was a welcome change for the team overall — it changed the dynamics of practices and team camaraderie.
Playing with more teammates is something Daavettila said helps her improve as a player.
“I love it,” Daavettila said. “I think it’s so much more fun, and so many more different personalities are on this team, especially adding a few more girls. It just makes practice so much more competitive. We have a really deep team and a lot of talented players.”
In the end, though, all of the players had the opportunity to travel to the ITA Championship, an opportunity Kalbas was grateful for. After one of the most trying offseasons in program history, his entire squad was together when the Tar Heels returned to Chapel Hill as back-to-back ITA National Team Indoor champions for the first time ever.
“We were very fortunate to be able to bring everybody,” Kalbas said. “Our administration was really gracious to find some more resources to bring everybody so they could experience a national championship event.”