Women's tennis is a national powerhouse—not only one of the most successful programs at Amherst but also one of the best in all of Division III athletics. It's been nine years since the team brought home the first NCAA championship trophy in the history of Amherst athletics. Last year, the women fell just short of a second national crown. But this season, they stand among the favorites to return to the NCAA title match.
Since 2001, with a constant stream of standout players, Amherst has earned 47 all-conference honors—more than any other NESCAC school—and has featured two Rookies of the Year and three Players of the Year. Cornelia Steinberg '99 and Jamie Cohen '01 have been crowned individual national champions. Last year, Alicia Menezes '08 and Brittany Berckes '10 teamed up to win the national doubles title. The squad has also won the past three NESCAC championships. Invited to the NCAA Championship Tournament every year since 1995, Amherst has reached the national quarterfinal round in each of the past 10 years, the national semifinal round in eight of the past 10, and the national championship match three times, including last season and in 1999.
The 1999 win, in fact, helped to convince co-captain Laura Stein '08 to come to Amherst. "I knew how special it would be to join the program that had won the school's first national championship," she says.
The program's emergence in the top ranks has plenty to do with head coach Jackie Bagwell, the reigning NESCAC Coach of the Year. Since taking the helm in 1991, Bagwell has posted a dual-match coaching record of 228-51 (.817), highlighted by a perfect 20-0 mark in 1998-99. She was named Boston Area Coach of the Year in 2000.
Bagwell took up tennis as a high-school freshman, very late from a competitive standpoint. "There were not a lot of opportunities back in Kokomo, Ind., for girl's sports," she says, "and there certainly were not a lot of opportunities for good instruction or even facilities, so I never felt like I got to play enough." That experience has added to her hunger for the sport. "I still have dreams," she says, "in which I am frustrated because I can't find anybody to play tennis with me."
Bagwell works to give every practice a purpose: "I don't have the team run 10 miles when the real problem is that they can't play doubles." She's quick to admit that she hates to lose. "I try to motivate people to be their best on the court," she says, "and I demand a lot from the kids. But I also try to let them see that I am 100-percent confident that they can achieve what I demand."
In practice, Bagwell helps her players learn how to use strengths to their best advantage and how to neutralize or improve their weaknesses. "I could work a million hours and it would not be enough—they are so worth it," she says of her team. "I have gotten the chance to spend time with such amazing kids and their families over the years. I really enjoy staying connected [to them] once they graduate; I will always be their coach."
This article appeared in the Winter 2008 Issue of the Amherst College Alumni Magazine