ORLANDO, Fla. – To win the program’s first-ever national championship, head coach Brian Kalbas said he had to learn how to make changes and take risks.
A perfect, undefeated regular season, an ITA Indoor National Championship title and a No. 1 ranking, Kalbas said, put a target on the North Carolina women’s tennis team’s back heading into the postseason.
At the ACC Tournament, the N.C. State Wolfpack handed the Tar Heels their first loss of the season and a blow to their confidence. Without change, another successful regular season would go down in the record books as another postseason drop-off.
For four straight years, UNC has entered the NCAA Tournament as one of the top-two seeds, but for the past three years, the team struggled to match their dominant regular seasons with a championship trophy. The Tar Heels fell short in the NCAA Semifinals in 2019, 2021 and 2022. The last time they advanced to the finals was in 2014, where they fell 3-4 to the UCLA Bruins.
Kalbas said the last three years of having that target on their backs and entering the tournament with nearly-perfect records, meant there were few opportunities where the Tar Heels learned from losses and figured out how to improve their game.
But, the ACC Championship loss in April provided that rare opportunity for the team to re-group and fix the gaps in their game plan.
“They made us better,” Kalbas said. “We had to kind of look inward and figure out some things because, you know, we hadn't lost. For us to kind of have a little more of a growth mentality and look at some different things, the openness of this team to do that was special.”
So, before the first round kicked off in Chapel Hill, Kalbas made a drastic change to the line-ups. The doubles pairs that had been playing together all season and had only lost the team point three times were all reconfigured. Instead of playing at the No. 3 seed, graduate student Abbey Forbes moved up to the No. 1 spot with junior Fiona Crawley.
First-year Reese Brantmeier traded the No. 1 seed for the No. 3 seed to play alongside junior Reilly Tran, and senior Elizabeth Scotty moved down a court to play with sophomore Carson Tanguilig.
The changes did not stop there. Crawley, the No. 1 collegiate women’s tennis player in the country, swapped her spot as the team’s top singles player with No. 8 Brantmeier. Now, instead of playing on court one, Crawley competed at the No. 2 seed.
Finally, instead of playing in both singles and doubles matches, Forbes vacated her post as the team’s No. 4 singles player to allow senior Anika Yarlagadda to step up to play at the No. 6 position.
Despite these late, drastic changes, Kalbas said the team was willing to switch things up for the sake of putting their best foot forward.
The changes paid off. In singles, Crawley won every singles match in the tournament and posted a much-needed point on the scoreboard for her team in every tight match. Brantmeier clinched victories in three out of four singles matches in Orlando against ranked opponents – including the No. 3-ranked singles player, Georgia’s Lea Ma.
Although the new doubles pairs struggled to find their rhythm in the Super Regionals and Quarterfinals, the teams took every loss in stride and as a learning opportunity. When the North Carolina doubles pairs finally clinched the doubles point over No. 3 Georgia in the Semifinals, the path for a championship match appearance was laid.
With memories of the ACC Tournament in the back of their mind, the hard work and willingness to make changes lifted UNC to grab the doubles point against N.C. State in the national championship – against doubles teams that Kalbas called the best in the country.
“It's just kind of what we've been working for all year,” Tanguilig said.
Kalbas also realized that finally winning a NCAA National Championship trophy was not all about hitting the extra ball in practice or preparing the perfect game plan, but rather about mentality – playing for each other.
Senior team captain Sophia Patel served a crucial role in team mentality and the team’s MVP, Kalbas said.
“She was our MVP of this year,” he said in a post-game press conference. “She didn't play in our line-up, but we would be nowhere without her leadership, her guidance and support.”
After every match clinched in the tournament, Patel was one of the first players to race onto the court to congratulate her teammates. And every time a Tar Heel hit their match-winning stroke, their team captain was the first person they looked for on the sidelines.
When the trophy was won, Patel was the person to accept it on behalf of her teammates.
A trophy that would have been unattainable without the selfless team culture Kalbas calls their brand of “team tennis.”
@dthsports | firstname.lastname@example.org
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.