Durham, N.C. -- Two girls from Chicago met for a study break on the Duke tennis courts during final semester exams last December, one joking with the other between volleys about using a fifth year of athletic eligibility to try her hand at the sport collegiately.
It was only a fleeting swatch of the conversation between Blue Devil senior soccer standout Nicole Lipp and her friend Molly Quirke, a three-year starter on the lacrosse team. But recalling it recently elicited a smile from Lipp, who could never have envisioned the exchange as a moment of foreshadowing for her final semester at Duke.
Yet, after a series of personnel issues sliced the Blue Devil tennis roster in half this spring, there was Lipp out on the courts in a new Duke uniform, competing in the sport for the first time since her senior year of high school, just to help her school field a lineup. The rustiness of having focused on headers and free kicks instead of serves and backhands was evident in Lipp’s return to the sport in which she was once ranked at the junior level, but coach Jamie Ashworth was more than appreciative of her efforts.
“She’s in a really tough spot having not played competitive tennis in five years, but she’s having fun and she’s improved,” Ashworth noted. “She’s definitely uplifted the spirits of our team. We had a group over spring break that was pretty down, but I think just having her out there has really lifted our spirits.”
That spirits needed lifting for a team ranked as high as second in the nation this spring could be attributed to the cumulative weight of an uncommon series of adverse circumstances.
Strike one came just before the start of the spring semester when the team’s top player, Beatrice Capra, was dismissed from the university for an academic violation. Capra was last year’s ACC player of the year, rookie of the year and tournament MVP, so her absence created an obvious void.
Strike two came two weeks after the Capra decision, when junior Rachel Kahan underwent Tommy John surgery, eliminating her from the lineup for the rest of the spring. Kahan had singles records of 31-1 and 26-5 her first two years and had been recovering from an initial elbow surgery last summer, so her loss marked another major blow.
That left Ashworth with a six-player roster, the bare minimum needed to field a complete lineup in college tennis, where head-to-head team competition is scored based on the results of six singles matches (one point each) and three doubles matches (one point to the team that wins at least two of the three).
Even without two of their most accomplished performers, the Blue Devil Six enjoyed a strong start to the season by reaching the semifinals of the ITA National Team Indoors Championship (where they fell to No. 1 UNC) and shutting out No. 2 Florida in impressive fashion. They owned an 8-1 record and had moved up to No. 2 in the country themselves when they headed north for a pair of matches at Michigan and Notre Dame the first weekend of March.
The Devils suffered a 4-3 setback to the 13th-ranked Wolverines to start the trip, but bounced back to defeat 18th-ranked Notre Dame 5-2. The win over the Fighting Irish, though, was accompanied by strike three on the adversity front as sophomore Monica Turewicz injured her Achilles tendon during a tiebreaker in her singles match, immediately ending her season.
Ashworth’s active roster now stood at only five players, meaning his team would be down 1-0 before it even took the court by having to forfeit a singles match. That deficit would rise to 2-0 if Duke could not sweep the two doubles matches it was able to play. So any margin for error the team enjoyed had been reduced to razor-thin proportions — compounded by the fact that most of the Blue Devils would have to play at a higher spot in the lineup than they would have otherwise.
Duke had only one match scheduled between the Mar. 3 Notre Dame contest and its Mar. 23 ACC opener at N.C. State — a spring break flight to Las Vegas to face Indiana. The five-player lineup put up a fight by winning the two doubles matches to claim that point, and by playing all five singles matches into three sets. But the Hoosiers parlayed victories in the top three positions with the forfeit at No. 6 singles to pull off a 4-2 upset — leaving Duke with a solid 9-3 record but facing an uncertain conference season.
Before Turewicz was hurt, Ashworth recalled a conversation he’d had three years ago with Lipp, a defensive midfielder on the Duke soccer team with an extensive tennis background. She was merely inquiring about any possible walk-on roles the tennis team might have, and it never went any further with her year-round focus on soccer. But down to six players this spring, Ashworth and his assistant Marc Spicijaric talked about Lipp. When the roster went to five, they decided to see if she was interested now that her soccer career was over.
Lipp already knew just about everyone on the team. She and Turewicz are from the same hometown (Lake Forest, Ill.). Junior Hanna Mar, a two-time All-ACC honoree, played for one of Lipp’s high school rivals in Illinois, leading her team to three state titles. Lipp had played against Duke’s lone senior, Mary Clayton, in some juniors competition. And earlier in her Blue Devil career, Lipp had hit balls a few times with Monica Gorny, who graduated last year.
Given her interest in the sport and her social connections to the team, Lipp says she didn’t hesitate when Ashworth asked her to come over so he could watch her hit in an impromptu audition — even though she had a few other plans for her final semester at Duke.
“I definitely wanted to get right on the court again,” she said. “Duke has so many amazing opportunities to take advantage of and I was looking forward to having more time to go to more events, attend networking sessions, things like that. People have been telling me, ‘You couldn’t sit still? You had to join another sport?’ But it has been so much fun.”
Lipp, who started 85 of 90 soccer matches the past four years and helped Duke reach the 2011 NCAA final, made her college tennis debut in the ACC opener against N.C. State, teaming with junior Marianne Jodoin in doubles and completing the singles lineup at the No. 6 position. She lost both matches, but the team won 4-1. In Duke’s next match vs. Wake Forest, she and Jodoin won their doubles match to clinch the doubles point and the Devils went on to a 6-1 team victory.
“The first weekend was a whirlwind, just focusing on the ball and trying to get it in the court, pretty basic,” said Lipp, who started playing tennis at age 5 or 6 and was an all-state performer in high school while also starring in soccer. “Now that I’ve been in it a couple weeks, I feel much more normal and my rhythm and movement on the court are back. It’s been an adjustment but I’m getting better every day I think. The coaches have been really helpful in helping me improve every day and that’s the main goal.”
“We spent about 10 days with her hitting and talking about it before we put her out there,” Ashworth said. “I’m sure she had different plans for her last semester here, but she’s been great. She brings a lot of energy…and personality-wise she’s a good fit, fun to have.”
Through Duke’s first four ACC contests, Lipp won some occasional points from her opponents (while being cheered on by numerous soccer teammates in the bleachers) but ultimately lost each singles match in straight sets. Handling that has been the most difficult aspect of her return to the sport. “I don’t really like to lose,” she said. “While our team is winning, which is amazing, it’s definitely been an adjustment saying, ‘Okay, I haven’t competed in this sport in a couple of years and I’m taking a few losses.’ But I feel like I’m learning a lot from it, and it’s just an incredible experience at the end of the day.
“Being around the team, coming to practice, it’s just so much fun. It really brightens my day. It definitely adds a punch to my day that wasn’t there for the past couple of months (since soccer season ended).”
The experience took another twist the first week of April when sophomore Ester Goldfeld, a two-time All-ACC selection who was playing at No. 2 singles, tripped in practice and fractured a bone in her hand while trying to break her fall. Suddenly Duke was back down to five healthy players, forced to forfeit a singles and a doubles match in each contest, with no relief in sight from any other unexpected additions.
Georgia Tech and Clemson took advantage by defeating the Blue Devils in Duke’s final two home matches before the team embarked on a string of five ACC road tests to end the regular season, in which the squad struggled, dropping four of the five. With six conference teams ranked among the Top 25, Ashworth and his team realized they faced a difficult challenge before turning their attention to ACC and NCAA tourney play.
“It’s a great group as far as fighting and competing,” said Ashworth, the all-time winningest tennis coach in ACC history and the architect of Duke’s 2009 national championship. “We’ve talked about not worrying about the end results — this will show a lot about your character. Pretend there is a little girl out there watching you play for the first time. What’s her impression of you going to be as a person, as a fighter? We haven’t shown any quit. We’ve fought our butts off.
“Obviously our depth is shot. It’s just so mentally tough to be down 1-0 before you even step on the court, and if you have one bad doubles match you’re down 2-0. But we have great leadership. Mary Clayton is our only senior and I feel for her more than anyone because this is not how your senior year is meant to be. But I told her the other day, ‘If anyone can handle this, you can. You’re the captain of this team for a reason. It’s easy to be a captain in January or February when we’re two in the country and just beat Florida. This tells a lot about you as a person.’ She’s done a good job of keeping everybody up.”
Last year, with the top-ranked recruiting class of Capra, Goldfeld, Turewicz and Annie Mulholland playing a major role, the Blue Devils were undefeated in ACC play, won the league tournament and reached the semifinals of the NCAA. This year, only Mulholland from that group is still on the court, but only Clayton (and Lipp) will graduate, so Ashworth is optimistic about what lies ahead. Capra is taking the steps necessary to return to school, injuries should mend and at least one recruit is already committed.
The top priority now, though, is getting through May.
“Long term, looking back, this may be really good because we can see what some of our players can do under pressure situations they may not have gotten (otherwise),” said Ashworth, whose team dropped a hard fought match to Virginia Tech, 4-3, in the opening round of the ACC Championship.
“People keep getting better, that’s the biggest thing. They still have a lot to play for on an individual level trying to get into the NCAA Tournament.
“We’re still fighting and representing Duke. We want people around our program to be proud of how we’re representing Duke and how we’re fighting.”
Ashworth is a big Jimmy Buffett fan, and the latest injury to Goldfeld had him quoting song lyrics from “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes” to his team as they tried to maintain perspective on all that’s happened this spring. “There’s a line in there that says if we didn’t laugh we’d all go insane. I told them that would be our motto for the rest of the year.”