WALLA WALLA - Lizzy Schiller made her first Northwest Conference tennis match a memorable one, winning a tense three-set decision in singles to lift Whitman College to a 5-4 victory over Willamette Sunday at the Bratton Tennis Center.
With the team score even at 4-4, Schiller and Willamette's Emily Bee were the last opponents still on the court, waging a back-and-fourth battle at No. 5 singles.
Schiller, a junior playing her first season of college tennis, won the first set 6-3, but Bee bounced back to take the second 6-1.
The third set was close all the way. Bee picked up a service break to lead 3-2, but Schiller broke back and then held serve to move in front 4-3.
Schiller was one game from victory at 5-4 and 6-5, but Bee held serve in both cases to send the set to a seventh-game tie-breaker.
Schiller seized command in the breaker, winning the first four points. After Bee broke through to take the next two points, Schiller reeled off three points to nail down her match and the team victory for Whitman.
"Wow - that was great win for us," Whitman coach John Hein said. "Willamette is a very good team. For us to come back and win it after trailing 4-3 was great to see."
Whitman grabbed the early advantage by winning two of three decisions in doubles.
Schiller and first-year teammate Hannah Palkowitz won 8-2 at No. 3 doubles, beating Fabi Dieguez and Sabrina Gutierrez.
Whitman also got the win at No. 2 doubles, where junior Emily Rolston and sophomore Kate Kunkel-Patterson snared an 8-3 decision over Bee and Katie Huber.
Willamette picked up a point at No. 1 doubles, where Natalia Agarycheva and Shannon Palmer got past senior Elise Otto and sophomore Alyssa Roberg.
The two sides split their first two decisions in singles, giving Whitman a 3-2 lead in the team scoring. Otto downed Palmer 6-4, 6-3 in the No. 2 slot while Gutierrez defeated Kunkel-Patterson 6-4, 6-1 at No. 4.
Agarycheva, a senior and the reigning NWC Player of the Year, squeaked past Roberg 7-6 (7-2), 6-4 in the featured match at No. 1, squaring the match at 3-3.
The Bearcats then took a 4-3 lead when Huber won a three-set battle (4-6, 6-2, 6-4) over Rolston at No. 3.
Palkowitz, playing at No. 6, forged another tie in the team scoring (4-4) with a quick 6-0, 6-3 victory Emily Funabiki.
That left both teams and fans focused on Schiller and Bee as they traded shots at No. 5.
"Anytime you win a 5-4 match that comes down to the last court, it's all about guts and composure," Hein said. "I'm really happy for the team that Lizzy stepped up to get the win.
"Lizzy played such a composed third set. Her opponent also played a terrific match and was serving her best in the third. To have it all come down to a third-set tie-breaker is as exciting as it gets."
Hein was thrilled with the depth of talent his team showed in its first conference match.
"From last season, last fall and our non-conference match on Saturday against Lewis-Clark State, we knew we were going to be tough at the top," he said. "But it was gratifying to see our depth come through and play a key role in today's victory.
"It was a testament to all of the hard work Lizzy and Hannah have put into their tennis, not to mention their mental toughness, that they were able to sweep at No. 3 doubles and No. 5 and No. 6 singles."
Hein also was thrilled with the number of fans who attended the match as part of Campus Kids' Day, a community outreach program sponsored by the U.S. Tennis Association.
"It was wonderful to see fans and kids from the community at the match, along with a lot of Whitman students, staff and faculty," he said.
"We couldn't have asked for a better match from a spectator point of view, and our players did a great job of coaching and working with the young kids right after the match."
In winning its first NWC match, Whitman improved to 1-2 on the season. Willamette slipped to 1-2 in the NWC and 1-3 overall.
Whitman plays its next two conference matches on the road, traveling to Lewis & Clark next Saturday and Linfield on Sunday.
Willamette plays at Lewis & Clark on Friday and then hosts Pacific Lutheran on Saturday.