The history of NEC women’s tennis: Classic rivalries? Check. Classic matches? Check. Larger than life characters? Check.

The Northeast Conference (NEC) Tennis Championships are near and dear to our heart here at Overtime!  Flying under the radar, the event year-in and year-out produces some of the most gripping postseason drama the Conference has to offer.  And with 19 teams set to convene at Mercer County Park in West Windsor, NJ from April 15th to 17th, the latest chapter will be written in a sport – especially on the women’s side – that is deserving of a long-form retrospective, if not its own DVD box set.

The annual women’s tournament has had it all over the last 13 years since the change from an individual to team-flighted format. 

Classic rivalries?  Check.  Classic matches?  Check.  Larger than life characters?  Check.

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Back To The Beginning
The drama in the women’s division started back in 1998 in the very first event under the new scoring format.  Playing at the historic Concord Resort in Kiamesha Lake, NY, the quest for the NEC Championship came down to defending champion Central Connecticut State going up against NEC newcomer UMBC.  While the state schools made have shared many similarities, the two coaches were a study in contrasts.  A quiet, steadying influence on his troops, UMBC’s Keith Puryear was looking to make a splash in the Retrievers’ first-ever trip to the NEC’s postseason extravaganza.  On the other side, CCSU was led by the late Vic Stone, one of the great coaching characters in league history, irrespective of sport.  With a boisterous presence and no shortage in confidence, Stone had the Blue Devils on the cusp of repeating as champions.  With the match tied at four-apiece, it all came down to the #3 doubles match between the CCSU team of Cristina Argueso and Emily Athas and the UMBC tandem of Karina Mosling and Danielle Martinez.   Over the last two games of the match, both UMBC and CCSU failed to capitalize on three championship points apiece. After the Retrievers successfully fought off a match point to tie the contest at eight games apiece, the momentum swung decidedly to the Baltimore school. The Retrievers took a 6-3 lead in the tiebreaker, but the Blue Devils rallied to win the next five points and take a 7-6, and then an 8-7 advantage. The Retrievers would not surrender, and took advantage of two CCSU unforced errors to win the last three points of the match and earn the title.

The First Rivalry
That championship was only the beginning for the Retrievers, who would win five straight titles before departing for the America East in 2004.  But while UMBC was dominating the circuit, another program began to emerge as a worthy foil for the Retrievers. It wouldn’t be long before Quinnipiac would go from the hunter to the hunted.

Like UMBC, Quinnipiac also joined the NEC in time for the 1998-99 season.  In retrospect, that time period was a pivotal one for the sport of tennis in the conference.  With both programs supplying an influx of talent, the bar was raised for a slew of would-be challengers on both the men’s and women’s sides.  While the remainder of the league played catchup, the Bobcats had their own championship aspirations.  Brooklyn native Mike Quitko had built a national caliber program at the Division II level and saw no reason that success couldn’t translate in the NEC.  Following a third place finish in Quinnipiac’s initial postseason foray in 1998, the Bobcats would go on to make four straight appearances in the NEC title match.  On each occasion, however, UMBC thwarted Quinnipiac’s title dreams.  While a bitter pill to swallow, Quitko had an ace up his sleeve.  His teams were becoming tournament saavy and continuing to improve each season.

The Classic Rivalry
By the time the 2004 NEC Tournament rolled around, the roles were suddenly reversed.  A heavy favorite for the first time, the Bobcats rolled over second-seeded Long Island and put the championship trophy on a bus headed back to Hamden.  Little did anyone know at the time but a fresh new rivalry was born over those three days in West Windsor, NJ, one that would blossom into perhaps the fiercest and most compelling in the history of the conference.

A year later, the two teams found themselves on a collision course once again, but the song remained the same with Quinnipiac winning its second straight NEC crown with a 4-0 conquest of the Blackbirds. 

Fast forward one year later and the rivalry would just about explode.  With the soft-spoken Asi Phillips assuming the reigns of the LIU program, the Blackbirds and Bobcats would go toe-to-toe in a 2006 match that is now part of NEC lore.  In fact, what went down in 2006 and continued on through 2010 would become the subject of an award-winning feature by the NEC’s own Ralph Ventre last year.  Here it is reprinted in its entirety:

Rivalries are everywhere.  The Northeast Conference is no exception, and its ongoing tussle between two women’s tennis programs has been nothing short of exceptional.

Mike Quitko and Quinnipiac had already won the NEC title twice before Asi Phillips arrived on the scene at Long Island.

“All I kept hearing was Quinnipiac, Quinnipiac, Quinnipiac,” said Phillips, who became the Blackbirds’ head coach for the start of the 2005-06 academic year.  “I wanted to see what their team was all about.”

The first-year coach wouldn’t fully find out all he needed to know about Quitko’s Bobcats until 10 minutes prior to midnight on April 23, 2006.

After inclement weather pushed back the start time by six hours, the NEC Championship was finally underway at 7:00 pm that evening.  Nearly five hours later, Quinnipiac and Long Island were deadlocked at 3-3 and the conference title was hinging on the outcome of the lone unresolved match at No. 6 singles.

“It all came down to sixth singles, which came down to a third set, which went to a tiebreaker,” recounted Phillips of the gut-wrenching, nail-biting  battle between Quinnipiac’s Danielle Rodriguez and Long Island’s Claudia Arteaga.

Holding a 7-6 edge under the lights at Mercer County Tennis Center, Arteaga was one point away from sending the Blackbirds to their first-ever league crown. 

Rodriguez, however, wasn’t ready to let go of the title she and her teammates had held for each of the past two years.  The Quinnipiac junior won three consecutive points to clinch the Bobcats’ third straight championship match victory over the Blackbirds.
 

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“My player did not choke,” said Phillips. “Their player just rose to a higher level.”

Not only was it the third straight season that Long Island would pose with the runner-up up trophy, but it was the fifth time in five years that the Bobcats ended the Blackbirds’ season.  Quinnipiac posted 4-0 semifinal victories over LIU in 2002 and 2003.

“It hurt a lot,” remembered Phillips.  “I cried, not in front of the team, but I cried.”

When the rookie head coach pulled into his driveway that night, the tears began to flow. 

Not all was lost though.  The defeat taught Phillips a valuable lesson, one that he would constantly remind his team of during the coming seasons.

“From that match, I realized that Quinnipiac wasn’t going to give it to us.  If we wanted it, we would have to take it from them.”

It seemed as if 2007 would be the year that the Blackbirds were ready to take it. 

Facing none other than Quinnipiac in the title tilt, Long Island held a 3-2 edge and needed to win only one of the two remaining matches.

LIU’s Liliana Cortes had just about locked it up.  She sprinted out to a 6-1 lead in the third-set tiebreaker of her No. 4 singles match against Quinnipiac’s Amanda Petruzzi.

The year before, Rodriguez staved off one championship point in the Bobcats’ dramatic victory.  This time, Petruzzi would need to do that five times over just to give Quinnipiac a chance, and she did.

“After Petruzzi’s comeback, we all ran over to the other court where [Quinnipiac’s] Mary Wilson had been trailing [LIU’s] Ashley Harvey,” remembered Quitko.

As the Quinnipiac coach hustled over to catch a glimpse of the No. 2 singles match, Wilson had just evened the third set at 4-4.

“They took it from us again,” said Phillips, who watched Wilson complete a 6-4 victory that brought the four-hour, 45-minute slugfest to an end.
 

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The 2008 NEC title match was not a marathon, nor did it have a dramatic finish.  Still, the opponents were the same, and, much to Phillips’ chagrin, so was the result.

Posting a 4-2 team victory, Quinnipiac clinched its fifth consecutive league crown when Wilson completed a 6-4, 6-3 win over LIU’s Selma Babic.

“You have to attribute at least part of it to luck,” said Quitko of the 15 consecutive victories his team strung together in NEC Tournament play from 2004 through 2008.  “Training plays a factor as does pure ability, but it’s never easy to repeat when that target on your back gets bigger and bigger.”

Despite more postseason disappointment, Long Island never took its eyes off that target. 

“In order to be the best, you have to beat the best,” Phillips kept reminding his team.

The NEC’s two best collided again in 2009.

Accomplishing something it had failed to do in any of the prior five meetings, Long Island opened the match by taking the doubles point.

Then, returning the favor for her 2008 defeat, Babic handed Wilson a straight-set loss at No. 1 singles.

Quinnipiac freshman Natalie Duckor put the Bobcats on the scoreboard with a win at the No. 3 spot, but moments later LIU received victories from seniors Ashley Harvey and Amy Hosotsuji and the Blackbirds were NEC champions.
 

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The tears began streaming down Phillips’ face, but this time he wasn’t afraid to show it.

“Tears of joy,” said the coach, who had the weight of an anvil lifted off his chest.

“We just came out and took it from them.”

Nearly as remarkable as Long Island’s resiliency is the rivalry itself. In no other NEC sport, have the same two teams made their way to the conference title match on six consecutive occasions.

The frequency of their postseason meetings has fostered a mutual respect between the two juggernauts.

“We all knew every time you took the court against LIU, you had to do your best,” said Quitko.

Phillips sees the situation no differently.

“I respect and admire Quinnipiac. They bring out our best tennis.”

That piece was released just prior to the 2010 NEC Women’s Tennis Championships. To no one’s surprise, Long Island and Quinnipiac met for the ninth straight year in the postseason.  What was shocking was that it wasn’t with the title at stake.  Following a six-year stretch that saw the two programs meet each year for NEC supremacy, fans would have to settle for a semifinal battle this time around.  LIU won the match, 4-1, en-route to its second straight conference championship.

The Future
In just a few days, the setting will be a familiar one with Mercer County Park serving as the tourney host for the 11th consecutive year.  Likewise, the Championship will feature names synonymous with NEC tennis.  There’s FDU head coach Ira Miller, a seven-time NEC Coach of the Year who career with the Knights dates back to the mid-80s and the inception of tennis as an NEC-sponsored sport back in 1987.  How about Monmouth women’s coach Patrice Murray, who has guided her alma mater for the past 24 years.  Then there is Quitko, perhaps the face of the sport in the Conference over the last decade with a resume that includes nine NEC championships and nine NEC Coach of the Year awards since 2004.

Is a tenth title in the offing for the Bobcats?  Quitko’s defending champion men’s team is seeded third, while the women’s program has regained the top seed after a one-year absence.  There will be no shortage of contenders at this year’s event.  On the men’s side, a deep field includes #1 seed Sacred Heart and #2 seed Fairleigh Dickinson, who have combined to win three of the last four NEC crowns.  The Knights are also the women’s #2 seed, but who is it lurking as the #3 seed?  You guessed it.  Asi Phillps and his Long Island Blackbirds.

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Could the two programs meet for a tenth consecutive year in the postseason?

Well, history has been known to repeat itself…in NEC women’s tennis.

Stay tuned.

For more information on the 2011 NEC Tennis Championships, visit the Tournament Headquarters page and follow all the action on Twitter.

(Posted on April 13, 2011)

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